hail.… extol.…laud the mighty Roget’s Thesaurus!
Any one struggling with trying to find the right word can attest to the support that he or she may have found in the pages of Roget’s Thesaurus, a reference book that celebrates its birthday every April 29th. Writers pour through its pages in the hunt to find an alternate to “said” (articulated, phonated, viva voce) or establish the kind of “sleep” (catnap, doze, trance) or select the state of being “happy” (elated, joyous, upbeat).
Like its cousin the dictionary, the synonyms and antonyms of Roget’s Thesaurus are arranged alphabetically. That decision was made by its originator, Peter Mark Roget who published the first thesaurus in 1852, some 100 years after Samuel Johnson published the successful Dictionary of the English Language.
Roget’s objective with the thesaurus was to help the writer or speaker “to find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed.”
In the forward to the first edition, Roget wrote:
“It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the same form, as the Thesaurus now published.”
The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek θησαυρός (thēsauros), “treasure, treasury, storehouse”, and the thesaurus is indeed a treasure of language. A word of caution, however, to those who use this treasure trove improperly; fancy words do not guarantee academic writing.
For example, there is a danger of overuse, as demonstrated in this dialogue from a episode of Friends when the character Joey wanted to appear “smart”. He had replaced every ordinary word in an application letter with its synonym from the thesaurus:
Joey: I wrote, “They’re warm nice people with big hearts.”
Chandler: “And that became, ‘They’re humid pre-processing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps’?”
Students often make these same kinds of novice errors. In their attempts to sound “smart”, they include words they do not understand, adding “verdant” to “green” grasses. They create contradictory combinations such as “nimbly lethargic” or “exigent tolerance.” Then, there is the tale of the student whose creative writing assignment featured a woman eating a delicious chignon, a bun one puts in one’s hair.
Now, with software available on multiple platforms, students can choose to hunt through pages of a text or try one of several online thesaurus tools that help them find the perfect word.
There is the subscription based VisualThesaurus which is an “interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words.” Clicking on any word allows students to see an abundance of alternatives. A free version of this form of interactive thesaurus is found at Visuwords.
Merriam-Webster also offers a student friendly thesaurus at WordCentral which offers many other interactive features such as word-of-the-day or student-created disctionaries.