Is a thesaurus a dinosaur or a critically endangered species?

The web is scattered with references to why or what a thesaurus is; an unidentified or forgotten dinosaur or something even worse that is becoming increasingly endangered (a book that is chronically under-read). To be more accurate a a thesaurus is a reference tool used to locate synonyms (words that are similar in meaning to a particular word) or antonyms (words that are the opposite meaning of a particular word). Gorgeously derived from the Latin thēsaurus, meaning treasury from Greek thēsauros. Thesauri can be used to clarify the meaning of an unfamiliar word when its definition in a dictionary can’t be understood, and may be useful for a non-native speaker to expand vocabulary. I know, for instance, that I consistently use adverbs to strengthen a sentence. In my opinion, using MS Word by right clicking on a particular word does not elicit a wide enough range of words, and limits composition. Admittedly this function is extremely convenient but is the lazy option, and is not always the best route to literary success.

The most common use of a thesaurus is to avoid word repetition, to find substitutes, and prevent the monotonous overuse of a term in writing or speech. Similarly, a thesaurus is used to identify replacements for words that seem too common or dull, e.g., “see” might be replaced by “view.” This alternate vocabulary suggested by a thesaurus can be used to create texts that are more interesting and engaging because of the richer language that is used. But be careful! Sometimes the synonyms do not contain the same feeling or nuance as the original word and students might skew the meaning of a sentence and confuse the reader . In order to make sure you are not using a word with a different feeling, do a “cross check” of the new word by checking its own definition to make sure it matches the feeling you want. This technique weaves sophistication into the writing process.

Whether you retain a printed copy on your desk, bookmark a favourite website, or download an app to your smartphone, your writing will improve with frequent use of a thesaurus. In addition, you will learn new vocabulary in the process of looking up synonyms or their antonyms and no doubt become a better writer! Yet making mistakes is essential to becoming a better writer as the Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner said in his 1958 Paris Review interview: ‘Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error’.  Through trial and error, writing becomes easier. Faulkner said reverse the medium, let the story write itself and your style will evolve, instead of considering your style first to write the story. A thesaurus is one of the tools of the trade.

The Library holds several Thesauri in our collection, generally located within the 423 section on the first floor.  Perhaps the most famous thesaurus is Roget’s edition. A by-product of writing this review is that I have re-ignited my interest in using a thesaurus more.



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