A treasure store of language

ring in a bookA thesaurus is a reference book that helps you find le mot juste—the exact word you need. (Obviously I need one to avoid the pretentiousness of using a French phrase to get my message across.) A thesaurus also helps you add variety and interest to your writing by broadening your vocabulary. But most importantly, a thesaurus is enormously useful for solving crossword puzzles.

The word ‘thesaurus’ is derived from a Greek term for a treasure store. And indeed, it is a treasure store of language. Some of the ancients created lists of this type in Greek or Sanskrit, but the seminal modern thesaurus was published by Dr Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869), a British medical doctor, inventor and writer. He started his ‘classed catalogue of words’ in 1805 but did not publish it until 1852, under the catchy title of Thesaurus of English words and phrases, classified and arranged so as to facilitate the expression of ideas, and assist in literary composition. It has never gone out of print (Roget’s son and then grandson helped produce later editions), and has spawned many imitations.

To use a thesaurus, first familiarise yourself with its structure and system of organisation. Unlike a dictionary, which lists words alphabetically, the original thesaurus was organised thematically (the index helped you start your search), although today many thesauruses are organised alphabetically, or are published online. Each entry or ‘headword’ gives a brief definition then lists synonyms (words with the same or similar meaning) and antonyms (words with the opposite meaning). Be sure to find the entry for the correct part of speech (noun, verb, adjective, adverb, etc.), since many English words can serve more than one grammatical purpose. Some printed editions pair a thesaurus and dictionary in the one volume or even merge the entries into one listing, which is handy: few ‘synonyms’ mean exactly the same thing, so checking a definition in the dictionary is a crucial final step. English vocabulary is vast and you often need to discriminate between fine shades of meaning.

As long as you don’t go over the top by using weird or obscure words for the sake of looking clever, a well-thumbed thesaurus should sit at the elbow (or in the online bookmarks) of any writer.

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