Bonzer, topgallant, splendid, and dandy … praise indeed for university word experts

By Ellen Thomson at

A team of experts who have researched the meanings of nearly 800,000 English words have been recognised for their work.

The mammoth project is based at the University of Glasgow in the city’s West End.

Glasgow University and thesaurus

The current team at the Historical Thesaurus of English at the University of Glasgow including Professor Marc Alexander (at table), Dr Fraser Dallachy, Murdo Homewood and Elina Koristashevskaya (seated on window ledge); (Upper Right) Professor Michael Samuels (1920-2010), who set up the Historical Thesaurus of English project and (Lower Right) Professor Christian J. Kay (1940-2016) who was its second director

The Historical Thesaurus features 793,733 words arranged by their meaning, spanning more than a thousand years of the English language.

Set up more than 50 years ago, the team has now won a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher Education for the university.

It is available online for everyone to search at

Professor Marc Alexander is Professor of English Linguistics at the University of Glasgow and is the third director of the Historical Thesaurus of English after Professor Michael Samuels and Professor Christian Kay.

Professor Alexander said: “Hundreds of researchers at Glasgow have spent over fifty years scrutinising the English language of today and of our ancestors, and we are delighted the prize recognises this extraordinary effort.

“The result is that the gloriously messy and intricate evolution of English meanings over the last thousand years is laid out on every page of the Historical Thesaurus.”

He added: “This award is a well-deserved tribute to my predecessors Christian and Michael, and celebrates their hard work, intellectual rigor, and vision.”

The giant thesaurus is an immense reference work of use to linguists and scholars.


For example, searching the term “excellent” reveals a diverse range of adjectives including brave, bonzer, jelly, topgallant, splendid, pure merino, smick-smack, dandy and rad.

Next to each word are the dates each word was used, telling us that topgallant was first used to mean excellent in 1613 and last found in 1849, while the Australian term bonzer was first used in 1906 and continues to this day.

Professor Roibeard Ó Maolalaigh, Vice-Principal and the Head of the College of Arts at the University of Glasgow, said: “This has been a massive undertaking over the last half century.

“The Historical Thesaurus is a wonderful example of the University’s continued and ongoing commitment to support world-class research in the Arts and Humanities.

“This award is well deserved recognition for the commitment of our staff and students in producing, over many years, this living historical treasury of the English language.”

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, said: “I am delighted that the Royal Anniversary Trust has seen fit to honour the incredible work of the University of Glasgow’s Historical Thesaurus of English with this award.”