The Joy of Thesauri

November 24, 2014 § Leave a comment


I’ve been getting my thesaurus on. As you know, I recently acquired the latest New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, and it inspired me to pay more attention to my collection (yes, collection) of thesauri.

The word thesaurus comes from the Greek thēsauros, meaning ‘storehouse’ or ‘treasure’. That is undebatably fantastic. So it pleases me greatly to have a thesaurus of thesauri. On my desk currently: Roget’s Thesaurus (1983), The Penguin A-Z Thesaurus (2001) and Collins English Thesaurus (2012).

Roget’s is particularly interesting. Peter Mark Roget was a young doctor who, in 1805, invented the ‘classed catalogue of words’ that evolved into what we think of as a thesaurus. He only published it in 1852, after nearly half a century of prolific literary endeavour. Unlike most modern thesauri, Roget’s is ordered by subject: intellect, space, volition, time, relations… It requires an approach of active research – it’s for writers of articles and papers, not (like the Collins, for instance) carefully plagiarising school children.

My edition has a foreword on how to use it, and it’s a delightfully bizarre mix of scholarly pomp and what I would consider to be 2014-esque sentence structure. In short: excellent.

It is assumed you have an idea or meaning to express but cannot think of a satisfactory word for it. You therefore desire access to a wider range of vocabulary which may contain or at least suggest the word you are looking for. You turn to your Thesaurus. You know it has the relevant vocabulary. Your problem is to locate it. For this you will need the index. It need not be at all a close approximation, so long as it has some connexion. Most likely is will be one of the words you have already rejected as not suitable. That is quite good enough to start with, provided it is not a rare or recondite word.

A thesaurus of thesauri

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