My childhood friend, Jeff, and I used to read the dictionary when we were bored. There was little else to do on hot, sultry summer afternoons in Lincoln, Nebraska or on winter days when a blizzard kept us out of school. The dictionary was always handy in the living room because dad liked to solve newspaper word puzzles.
One winter day, Jeff discovered a new book sitting on top of the dictionary. Roget’s Thesaurus opened up a whole new avenue on that dull afternoon. After just a few days, we managed to read the Thesaurus from cover to cover. I wonder if anybody reads reference books from cover to cover anymore.
I’m guessing that many children and adults enjoyed reading the first “dictionary of synonyms” in the mid-nineteenth century, that is in homes where there were books and reading were encouraged. There were probably many boring, inclimate afternoons, in the 1850s, when people amused themselves with passages from Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases.
Let me be the first person to wish you a Happy Thesaurus Day, today. This is when we commemorate the birth of Dr. Peter Mark Roget. He first saw the light of day on January 18, 1779.
Roget was a physician, astronomer, mathematician, inventor, and writer. We know him best for his major retirement project, the Roget’s Thesaurus. His first edition was published in 1852. Thesauruses have been in print and revised continually ever since then.
The name, thesaurus, is defined as a collection of words, figuratively a repository. The Latin word, thesaurus, means “something laid up”, a hoard, a treasury, or treasure. In the 1800s, thesaurus and encyclopedia were interchangeable terms. After 1852, thesaurus became more closely related to a collection of words, not a collection of information.
Even though Jeff and I had actually read the Thesaurus, we didn’t formally learn how to consult and use the book until we entered junior high school, in 1964. Our English teacher said that while a thesaurus provides words that may seem to have the same meanings, there are enough differences, that we need to be careful about choosing words from thesauruses. She said the best way to avoid sloppy word choices is to consult a dictionary after we use a thesaurus.
The teacher told us there was no such thing as an absolutely true synonym, nor an absolute antonym (opposite meaning). A common example is how we choose whether to use the word “home” or the word “house”. That day might have been the first time I ever heard the word “context” used in a school lesson.
Thesauruses can now be easily accessed on the Web, so there is no longer a legitimate excuse for us not to consult one. Even though I can search online, I still keep my paper copy close at hand. Sometimes I like to open it at a random place, then read a few pages, just for old times’ sake.