by Becky L. Spivey, M.Ed.
The thesaurus (thi-SOR-us) is one of the oldest and most widely used
reference books, next to the dictionary. A thesaurus is a collection of
phrases, concepts, and related words usually alphabetized like a simple
dictionary. The first English language thesaurus, Roget’s Thesaurus,
was created in 1852 by Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869). The term
“thesaurus” comes from the Greek word “thesauros,” meaning
“treasure.” Roget created a reference book that is
the opposite of a dictionary. A dictionary is the book
to use when you know a word and want to spell it
correctly or learn more about it. When you know
what a certain word means, but you’re looking for
a different word to convey that same meaning, a
thesaurus is the book you need.
What Does a Thesaurus Do?
A thesaurus contains words (labeled with their part of speech) and their
synonyms (words that mean the same) and sometimes their antonyms (words that mean
the opposite). Some thesauruses include popular phrases/ideas like “what-do-you-call-it”
and “as pretty as a picture.” A thesaurus does not include lengthy definitions of words
like you find in a dictionary. A thesaurus requires you to know the intended meaning
of a word in its context in order to find its best synonym(s). Language reference books,
like a thesaurus, help us find alternative words and/or phrases to convey a particular
idea or concept.
A thesaurus groups words of very similar meaning and orders them in a hierarchy
of the most closely related word to a word that may have only a shade of the entry
word’s meaning. For example, when looking for the word beautiful, the synonyms
listed in one particular thesaurus are: attractive, beauteous, bonny, comely, dishy, fair,
foxy, good-looking, handsome, lovely, pretty, stunning, and well-favored. When using
beautiful in the context of something/someone being pretty, “attractive” appears first
as the most closely related synonym with “well-favored” coming last and having only a
shade of the meaning beautiful.
More About Thesauruses
Thesauruses come in many forms—a paper-filled book, a word processing tool on
your computer, a hand-held electronic device, or on a Web site. Thesauruses may differ
slightly in the way to search for words and their synonyms. Instead of finding entry
words alphabetically, the user may have to search entry words in an index found at the
back of the book and refer to a page number where an entire category of similar words
will be listed. For younger students, the alphabetical entry listing is the best introduction
to the thesaurus since it follows the same layout as a regular dictionary.
In the current technological world, students will likely learn to use the electronic
thesaurus included in most computers’ word processing programs, but the best
introduction in learning to use the thesaurus is the tried-and-true paper book. There
are many other thesauruses besides the ones for literary use (and dictionaries too) with
information about very specific or specialty subjects—psychology, art and architecture,
food and agriculture, biology, etc. Teaching students to use simple paper reference
books like the thesaurus and dictionary helps lay the foundation for navigating through
other reference books and materials as well as their electronic counterparts with more
efficiency and greater understanding.