What do you call a dinosaur with an expansive vocabulary? A thesaurus! And thanks to Peter Mark Roget, you can also call a book filled with synonyms a thesaurus and reference one whenever you’re in need of a fresh word with a specific meaning.
January 18th was selected as National Thesaurus Day because it is the birth date of Peter Mark Roget, who began compiling the first modern thesaurus in 1805. Roget’s Thesaurus was published in 1852 and has not been out of print since then. The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek word meaning treasure, and, in my opinion, a thesaurus is a treasure trove of etymological gems. The term thesaurus was first applied in our modern understanding by Roget in his Roget’s Thesaurus, which contained 15,000 words.
Now, almost any electronic word processor has a built-in thesaurus with far more words included in each subsequent edition, so it’s as easy as right clicking on a word to discover its close synonyms. And, a quick search engine scan can provide additional words and links to an online thesaurus. But, for National Thesaurus Day, it could be enlightening to try locating a print copy of a thesaurus and browse its pages. There’s something tactile, wistful, and erudite about turning the pages of an actual book in our digital age, and by referencing a thesaurus, I can also describe physical books as tangible, sentimental, and scholarly. If I feel the need to beleaguer my point, I could also mention how books are concrete, nostalgic, and cultured all thanks to a thesaurus!
Choosing the Exact Word
Anyone who works with words can benefit from the use of a thesaurus. I have most often consulted one in aid of my writing, but for people who are public speakers, or anyone who has conversations or sends emails wherein they want to appear intelligent, a thesaurus is a great contrivance. Using not only bigger, more complex language, but also more precise and accurate language is a worthy goal in any communication. As a technical writer and editor, a consistent focus of my work is finding the right word to communicate an exact meaning. For example, being imprecise in a health and safety procedure is irresponsible and could be dangerous. Sometimes my work leads me to ask for a specific number, unit of measure, or description of equipment. And sometimes my role as an editor is to suggest a more precise verb to describe a critical action someone needs to complete. My job is to work with skilled technical experts whose understanding of their field can be more clearly communicated with input from my knowledge of English and documentation. And thankfully, a good thesaurus (and a fairly extensive vocabulary) is one of the resources I have in my arsenal of editing aids.
Creatively Using a Thesaurus
Thesauruses have more application than the obvious use to replace a too-frequently used word without sacrificing meaning. A thesaurus is an invaluable tool for anyone wanting to expand their vocabulary and for a writer who needs to communicate something specifically. Synonyms are not always exact, and a thesaurus may help you narrow your focus from a word that is close to your intended connotation, but not precise enough to the perfect word (e.g., ‘ponderous’ implies large and weighty versus the more straightforward connotation of ‘heavy’). A thesaurus can also be used as a storytelling tool to elucidate your options of similar word choices if you want to repeat an idea in different ways for emphasis (e.g., a large, expansive, hulk of a giant). Whether you need a more specific term or more variety in your vocabulary, a thesaurus is a helpful tool to have close at hand.
Unlike a dictionary, a standard thesaurus does not provide definitions of the words listed. Rather, you can learn new meanings of terms by their relation or synonymy with other terms. I’m a proponent of experiential learning, and a lot of my language learning has been natural through reading as I completed school and for enjoyment. Using a thesaurus as an adult when faced with a challenging conversation or an email with leeway for misunderstanding is a way to brush up on new word associations and learn as specific quandaries about word selection occur in your job or life without the monotony of actually reading the dictionary. Maybe we can challenge ourselves to peruse the pages of the dictionary at random together on National Dictionary Day, which happens to be October 16th, but I mostly prefer to access such weighty tomes with a specific word in mind.
Playing Word Games
To celebrate National Thesaurus Day, you can look up a synonym for a word you use frequently, challenge yourself to list as many synonyms of a word as you can recall, or play a game called Synonym with one or more friends. To play, the first player says a single word and the other players take turns giving synonyms as quickly as they can for that word until a player cannot provide a synonym within 30 seconds on their turn. You could play with an egg timer, appoint someone to keep time on a watch or phone, or just use your best estimate as to how much time has elapsed. This game would be especially fun with a group of writers or avid readers, and even older kids should be able to play this simple game. Really, anyone who loves language and knows how to read could have fun playing Synonym, and if you get stumped, you can consult a thesaurus. You might learn some new words as you enjoy time with friends.
Thanks to a thesaurus, it’s easy to change big to enormous, small to miniscule, or said to described. And if you need another reason to appreciate and celebrate Peter Mark Roget’s creation of the thesaurus, I’ll give you five—thesauruses are helpful, obliging, cooperative, supportive, willing books filled with words for you to discover and use as they best fit your communication needs. If you need a technical writer or editor to help in accessing a thesaurus or to do the more detailed work of word selection, Shea Writing and Training Solutions can help you create documents that communicate meaning clearly and choose the best word for the right effect.