A thesaurus is a great help if you want to increase your vocabulary. While a dictionary gives you a definition and the pronunciation of a word, a thesaurus lists synonyms (a word or phrase which has the same or similar meaning as another word or phrase) and also sometimes antonyms (a word or phrase which has the opposite meaning of another word or phrase) of it.

A thesaurus is also a very useful tool when you’re writing and you find yourself repeating words, or when you have a word on the end of your tongue you can’t quite grasp. But use a thesaurus’ suggestions with caution when you don’t know the suggested word well. As Professor Simeon Potter, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Linguistics pointed out, “[a thesaurus is a] good reminder of words momentarily forgotten, but a bad guide to words previously unknown.”

The word ‘thesaurus’ comes from Latin and Ancient Greek, and means a collection of important or valuable things. The most well known modern thesaurus is ‘Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases’ which the British Dr. Peter Mark Roget began work on in 1805, publishing it in 1852 and it hasn’t been out of print since. However, there are other examples even dating back to around 100AD; the Greek author Philo of Byblos wrote a dictionary of synonyms around this time.

It took Roget almost fifty years to single-handedly complete his thesaurus, although he didn’t devote himself entirely to it until he’d retired from medicine in 1840. Even so, it was a huge achievement for one person.

In comparison, Samuel Johnson devoted nine years of his life to compiling the first English language dictionary and he had six assistants helping him (all crammed into his attic, by the way).

The University of Glasgow’s English Language Department has spent more than forty years producing the ‘Historical Thesaurus of English’ (HTE). As its name suggests, this thesaurus doesn’t just list synonyms, but groups words in chronological order beginning with Old English to the present day, covering more than 800,000 words. It’s claimed to be the largest ever thesaurus and the first historical one in any language. You can find where a word came from and how it evolved over time. You can also search for words which were used during a particular period of time enabling you to find all the words Shakespeare had available to him meaning ‘happiness’, for instance. No wonder it took such a large team of people so many decades to complete it and from such humble beginnings (they started by writing words on individual slips of paper).

Unfortunately the online HTE often leads to results in the online Oxford English Dictionary which requires a subscription to access. For a free online thesaurus, try the Collins Thesaurus which has more than 500,000 words or buy yourself a physical thesaurus to have on your desk.

So going back to my first question, is there an appropriate synonym for thesaurus?

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