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Thesauruses

A thesaurus contains groups of words and phrases with similar meanings. You can browse a group or you can use the index to find a particular word and its associated group(s). The semantically-related words in a group are more or less synonymous.

apartment = flat = note = record = relic = remains = corpse = skeleton = outline = contour = circuit = region = home = house = apartment house

The first and most famous modern English-language thesaurus was created by Peter Mark Roget: Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition (1852).1 It contained 15,000 words organized in six classes and many subsections of semantically-similar words. Today, there are many general and specialized thesauruses in many languages and on-line visual thesauruses graphically show the relationships of words. Almost every word processing program includes a dictionary and thesaurus. In addition to Roget's (which is out-of-copyright) there are several interesting and free thesauruses that can be downloaded from the Internet.

Moby Thesaurus is part of the public-domain Moby Project, a collection of public-domain, lexical resources created by Grady Ward. It contains over 30,260 root words with 2,520,264 synonyms and related words.2

WordNet, a project of the Princeton University Cognitive Science Lab, is a combination thesaurus and dictionary. It consists of a database of over 150,000 English nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs (with definitions) organized in over 117,000 synsets (sets of synonyms). In addition to synonyms it can show hypernyms (house is a kind of ...), hyponyms (... is a kind of house) and meronyms (parts of house). It also includes software tools for accessing and manipulating the database. It is not public-domain but can be used and modified at no cost. For example, WordWeb (commercial and free versions) is a dictionary-thesaurus based on WordNet and has additional features such as audible pronunciation.

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary is the largest thesaurus in the world and the first historical thesaurus to be compiled for any language. Created by the English Language Department of the University of Glasgow, it includes of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition) arranged semantically and by date. It is available in a printed edition. Limited access is available on-line.

A thesaurus shows words that are more general or more specific in meaning: for example, creator is more general than writer and poet is more specific than writer. You can use it to find synonyms or near-synonyms: envious may be more appropriate than jealous in the context of your writing. And it can help you to recall a word you can't simply can't remember: you look up throw in order to find the word defenestrate.

But if you are not familiar with the "synonyms," you may choose words that are inappropriate. The overuse of thesauruses by students is a problem for teachers, especially if the students aren't readers, haven't developed an "ear" and have a preference for polysyllabic words: "What you fathom in a thesaurus are packets of vocables with resembling signification."

Few words are exact synonyms. "The slippery man fell on the oleaginous floor" or "the oleaginous man fell on the slippery floor?" Many words and phrases have a connotative value; the other woman implies more than just another woman. And there are nuances of meaning: mate, comrade, chum, friend, buddy and companion are similar but their meanings are not exactly the same.

The more words you know the better a word-game player you can be (ignoring strategy and the luck of the draw). And to "know" a word is to "know" its meaning, not just recognize that it is a "real" word. There is no excuse for not knowing the definitions of the words you play. In fact, you should not be allowed to place a word on the board unless you can briefly define it. For more on this see Know the Words You Play.

When used with a dictionary, a thesaurus can help to expand and refine your vocabulary. Modern dictionary-thesauruses are plentiful and easy to consult while playing a word game.


To a Thesaurus

    "To a Thesaurus"
  by Franklin P. Adams

O precious code, 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,
  Favour, 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! 3

Roget's Tree


At the start of Roget's Tree seven or more letters are placed in the center column of the board, forming the trunk of a tree. You then place words at the top of the trunk to extend it upward, attach words to the trunk to form new branches or attach words to branches to form additional branches.

game board

In even-numbered rows you add branches to the trunk by adding letters to the left. In odd-numbered rows you add branches to the right. Arrows indicate which side you may attach to. The game can be made more or less difficult by changing the Trunk Size and Game Mode.

When a valid word is checked, the score for the word is the sum of (1) the letter-points of the primary word and all new cross-words (if any) and (2) any bonus points. When you use all seven tiles in your tray to form a word (sometimes called a bingo), the total points for the play are doubled.


See also

Quick Intro to Roget's Tree

Drudges Two and Dictionaries

Humor in Dictionaries


Notes

1Roget also invented the log-log slide rule (used to raise numbers to powers), published a number of scientific papers as well as articles for the Encyclopędia Britannica and was involved in the establishment of the University of London and the Royal Society of Medicine.

2Other components of Moby Project are Moby Hyphenator (187,175 hyphenated words), Moby Pronunciator (177,267 words with pronunciations), Moby Part-of-Speech (233,356 words with part(s) of speech) and Moby Language (French, German, Italian, Japanese and Spanish wordlists). Grady Ward also created a public-domain version of the complete works of William Shakespeare.

3Franklin P. Adams, "To a Thesaurus," in Tobogganing on Parnassus (Garden City and New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1912), 92-93.