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Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases
by Peter Mark Roget

I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in dark streets.
I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.
—Billy Collins, “Thesaurus”

It has become something of a literary cliché to bash the thesaurus, or at the very least, to warn fellow writers that it is a book best left alone. Some admonitions might be blunt, others wistful, as with Billy Collins musing on his rarely opened thesaurus. But beyond the romantic anthropomorphizing of words needing to break free from “the warehouse of Roget,” what of Collins’ more pointed criticism, that “there is no/such thing as a synonym”? That would suggest that the whole enterprise of constructing a thesaurus is predicated on a fiction.

It is only a fiction if one holds fast to the notion that synonyms must be exactly equivalent in their meaning, usage, and connotation. Of course, under this strict view, there will never be any “perfect” synonyms. No word does exactly the job of another. In the words of the linguist Roy Harris, “If we believe there are instances where two expressions cannot be differentiated in respect of meaning, we must be deceiving ourselves.”

But the synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically more like siblings that share a striking resemblance. “Brotherly” and “fraternal,” for instance. Or “sisterly” and “sororal.” They may correspond well enough in meaning, but that should not imply that one can always be substituted for another. Consulting a thesaurus to find these closely related sets of words is only the first step for a writer looking for le mot juste: the peculiar individuality of each would-be synonym must then be carefully judged. Mark Twain knew the perils of relying on the family resemblance of words: “Use the right word,” he wrote, “not its second cousin.”

No matter how tempting the metaphor, though, words are not people. We cannot run genetic tests on them to determine their degrees of kinship, and a thesaurus is not a pedigree chart. We can, nonetheless, look to it as a guidebook to help us travel around the semantic space of our shared lexicon, grasping both the similarities that bond words together and the nuances that differentiate them.

This was, in fact, more or less the mission of Peter Mark Roget when he published the first edition of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in the spring of 1852. He organized sets of synonyms according to one thousand categories, neatly arrayed in a two-column format. Roget was utterly obsessive about making lists, keeping a notebook full of them as early as eight years old, and by age twenty-six he had compiled a hundred-page draft of what would become his greatest work. List making was a welcome relief from his chronic depression and tumultuous family life; it was a way of imposing order on a messy reality. In his autobiography, he would not bring himself to explore his personal troubles; instead he dispassionately noted places he visited, moving days, birthdays, and death days. He called it “List of Principal Events.”

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  • The thesaurus is invaluable to anyone writing formal verse. It allows the poet to sift through lists of words while seeking words with the right metrical qualities and nuance of meaning, as well as possibly rhyme.

    Rhyming dictionaries are similarly helpful, and ideally should present all possible rhyming words - something software now makes possible.

    Posted by Mike Cope on Thu 22 Mar 2012

  • Often when I write I'll feel a word vibrating at an extrememly low, inaudible frequency. Once I glance at it in a thesaurus the word will resonate and become obvious.

    Posted by dave on Thu 22 Mar 2012

  • Ode to a Thesaurus
    by Franklin P. Adams

    O precious codex, volume, tome,
    Book, writing, compilation, work
    Attend the while I pen a pome,
    A jest, a jape, a quip, a quirk.

    For I would pen, engross, indite,
    Transcribe, set forth, compose, address,
    Record, submit--yea, even write
    An ode, an elegy to bless--

    To bless, set store by, celebrate,
    Approve, esteem, endow with soul,
    Commend, acclaim, appreciate,
    Immortalize, laud, praise, extol.

    Thy merit, goodness, value, worth,
    Expedience, utility--
    O manna, honey, salt of earth,
    I sing, I chant, I worship thee!

    How could I manage, live, exist,
    Obtain, produce, be real, prevail,
    Be present in the flesh, subsist,
    Have place, become, breathe or inhale,

    Without thy help, recruit, support,
    Opitulation, furtherance,
    Assistance, rescue, aid, resort,
    Favor, sustention, and advance?

    Alas! Alack! and well-a-day!
    My case would then be dour and sad,
    Likewise distressing, dismal, gray,
    Pathetic, mournful, dreary, bad.

    * * *

    Though I could keep this up all day,
    This lyric, elegiac, song,
    Meseems hath come the time to say
    Farewell! Adieu! Good-by! So long!

    Posted by Tom Bell on Thu 22 Mar 2012

  • I echo Mike Cope's sentiments above. As a translator of medieval texts--including verse--the thesaurus is for me an invaluable tool in trying to match, as nearly as possible, the myriad qualities of a word in Latin or medieval German with a word (or words) in English.

    Working recently on Hildegard of Bingen, for example, I struggled for some time to find a suitable phrasing for "sol et luna ipsis incouenienter ostendantur", a particularly striking way of describing the disordering cosmological impact of human sin. The phrase truly turns on the adverb "incouenienter" to express the way the sun and moon were acting against type, as it were: out of the ordinary, unusual, unpredictable, but all from the perspective of how they are supposed to function within the divinely ordered cosmos at whose pinnacle (and as whose microcosm) stands humanity. This is where rummaging through the thesaurus proved invaluable: "The sun and moon prove themselves intractable, for they do no follow their courses as set by God but exceed them."

    Posted by Nathaniel Campbell on Thu 22 Mar 2012

  • I fear that these electronic thesaurus could stop invention of new words .IN old days people were used to improvise word for new things using their old vocabulary or from other languages .But as such list of synonym is available at click of mouse that attitude to create new words will die and new words added to language will dwindle day by day !
    I mean to say there is disasters effect of containment of language !

    Posted by NEELESH SALPE on Thu 22 Mar 2012

  • THE DOMAIN OF THESAURUS REX

    Royally he treads the land,
    The earth, the countryside,
    The fields, the farms, the dirt, the sand.
    He howls of these
    Multiplicities
    To flood, submerge, inundate
    The febrile mind in words,
    In terms, nouns, verbs to conjugate,
    To tickle fancies into fantasies,
    Shriek metaphors and similes,
    Diddle with the functions
    Of prepositions , exclamations,
    Punctuations and conjunctions
    Leaving us to flee in fear
    From this assault upon the ear,
    Overwhelmed by lexicography
    Seeking pure cognography

    Posted by Jan Sand on Fri 23 Mar 2012

  • Thesauri don't kill prose and poetry. People kill prose and poetry.

    Posted by Kevin Maloney on Fri 23 Mar 2012

  • I never go to the thesaurus looking for blank inspiration. I go to the thesaurus when I know there's a word meaning exactly what I want it to mean, but I can't quite bring it to mind.

    Posted by Kevin W. Parker on Fri 23 Mar 2012

  • Kevin W. Parker stole my thunder, but I'll pitch in a me too, for what it's worth.

    Posted by jhm on Sat 24 Mar 2012

  • I third Kevin Parker. I've always used the Thesaurus to chase down particular words I can't quite retrieve, and more and more as I get older. I have no doubt that finding the word I'm looking instead of settling for second choice improves my writing.

    I just had to refresh Captcha about 30 times before I got one I could read. Do others have this problem?

    Posted by Denise on Thu 29 Mar 2012

  • On the subject of thesauri, let me vent about the scarcity of Roget's category-based books these days. Almost all available thesauri today are the pallid "dictionary" kind: greatly inferior to the category-based ones, but eating up all the shelf space at bookstores like McDonald's driving better restaurants into bankruptcy. Even books with "Roget" in the title are now mostly dictionary style; my 1977 Roget's is getting ragged from overuse, but I haven't managed to find a suitable replacement.

    Posted by Jim Gardner on Sat 31 Mar 2012

  • Fun article.

    Mike Cope and Nathaniel Campbell are correct. In my case, I rarely use a thesaurus when writing, but I use one constantly when translating.

    Writers of formal verse, of course, need lines to scan, and writers of free verse still need the poem to sound good. Compromises are necessary. That's one reason why verse is not an appropriate medium for scholarship, journalism, law, and how-to-books.

    Posted by Kent Richmond on Fri 6 Apr 2012

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About the Author

Ben Zimmer is the executive producer of VisualThesaurus.com and Vocabulary.com, and he writes a biweekly language column for the Boston Globe. This essay is adapted from his introduction to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, Third Edition, forthcoming from Oxford University Press, August 2012.

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