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What is a Thesaurus? - Definition, Use & History

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  • 0:00 What Is a Thesaurus?
  • 1:46 Types of Thesauri
  • 2:42 How To Use a Thesaurus
  • 4:08 A Word of Caution
  • 4:45 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll learn what a thesaurus is and how to use one. We'll also study a bit about the history of the thesaurus and the various types of thesauri available.

What Is a Thesaurus?

You sigh as you start your English homework. It's the same thing every year. Your teacher wants you to compose a paragraph about your summer vacation, so you begin by writing, 'My summer vacation was very interesting. My family and I visited an art museum where we saw a whole bunch of interesting paintings and sculptures. We also went to an aquarium and saw many interesting fish and sea creatures. Finally, we got to see some very interesting Civil War battlefields and learn all about the interesting battles that happened there.' You stop writing and look back at your paragraph, noticing that you have just used the word 'interesting' five times. Oops! It's time to find a different word! You reach for your trusty thesaurus.

What is a thesaurus anyway? A thesaurus is a reference work that lists the synonyms and sometimes antonyms of words. Synonyms are words with similar meanings, and antonyms are words with opposite meanings. The word 'thesaurus' comes from Greek, and it means 'treasure,' so we can think of a thesaurus as a treasury of words that can help us better understand the meanings of those words and use them more effectively and efficiently in our writing.

Dr. Peter Mark Roget, a British doctor and mathematician, created the first thesaurus. He started collecting synonyms in about 1805 and pretty soon had a nice, little index of them that he used for his own writing projects. In the 1840s, he decided that his list might be of some benefit to others, so he quit his job as a doctor and started to work full time on expanding his collection and getting it ready for publication. The first thesaurus hit the market in 1852 and has remained in print ever since.

Types of Thesauri

There are many different types of thesauri (yes, that's the plural of thesaurus) available. Print books are still quite popular. Some of these are dictionary-style with entries that are listed alphabetically. Others are concept style and group words into categories of meaning. Users have to look in an index in the back of the book to find particular entries. The dictionary-style of thesaurus is by far more popular and easier to use.

These days, electronic thesauri are taking the lead over print versions. Several good options are available online, including thesaurus.com, the Collins Thesaurus, and the Oxford Thesaurus. Users simply have to type in a word to see a whole bunch of synonyms and antonyms. What's more, most word processor programs have a thesaurus built right in. With just a right click on a word and the right menu selection, users can access a whole list of synonyms and even a pop-up thesaurus.

How To Use a Thesaurus

Now let's practice actually using a thesaurus. We'll go back to the example of your summer vacation paragraph. We need to find some synonyms for 'interesting.' If we look up the word in a paper copy of Roget's Thesaurus, we'll find several options, including:

  • Fascinating
  • Enthralling
  • Engrossing
  • Absorbing
  • Appealing
  • Colorful

If we search further and type 'interesting' into the online thesaurus, we get even more synonyms, including:

  • Attractive
  • Entertaining
  • Compelling
  • Delightful
  • Engaging
  • Pleasing
  • Striking
  • Unusual
  • Curious
  • Intriguing
  • Captivating
  • Amusing

See how easy it is to use a thesaurus?

Now let's see how you might rewrite your paragraph using some of your new synonyms. It might look something like this:

'My summer vacation was very interesting. My family and I visited an art museum where we saw a whole bunch of colorful and appealing paintings and sculptures. We also went to an aquarium and saw many unusual and amusing fish and sea creatures. Finally, we got to see some very striking Civil War battlefields and learn all about the fascinating battles that happened there.'

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