Look for, seek, find

3rd May 1996 at 01:00

David Self samples contemporary successors to Dr Roget's Thesaurus One happy byproduct of the computer revolution is that far more people now know what a thesaurus is - and even use one. That said, the thesaurus function in many word-processing programs (a word with no synonym?) is decidedly basic (elementary, rudimentary, stark) being no more than a list of near-synonyms and certainly not what Dr Roget had in mind.

The word "thesaurus" comes from the Greek for treasure; its original English meaning was "treasure house". Roget's grand design was to classify words by concept "to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition". His magnificent creation is now dated and his largely abstract categories (such as "Relation", "Quantity" and "Order") do not easily accommodate new words. For example, a recent revision lists "computer" under "abacus".

The user of a thesaurus may simply want a synonym, an alternative word to avoid repetition. But Roget (his name has become a synonym, indeed the only one, for thesaurus) not only helps the user find a more precise word or phrase but also helps the writer find a word to express an idea when he or she does not have any such word in mind.

To that end, Roget and his imitators provide an index or word list which directs the user to clusters of related words. It is an effective but sometimes cumbersome process and, in recent years, publishers have tried to produce something simpler for general use.

So we have The Concise Oxford Thesaurus, compiled by Betty Kirkpatrick who edited the latest Roget. This is simply (as its sub-title makes clear) "a dictionary of synonyms". In standard dictionary format, it provides straightforward and comprehensive lists of possible alternatives to each headword.

Additionally, it includes 400 tables or lists of related words, especially of proper nouns. Thus at "desert" we get Arabian, Colorado, Gobi and Kalahari, etc, and at "dessert" we get apfelstrudel, jelly, junket and Mississippi mud pie. There is a lack of cross referencing: no entry under "stool" but a "table" of stools (bar, milking) under "chair". It is also rather prudish: no entry under "stools" although that word is listed under "faeces". Surely the reverse would be more useful?

The Chambers Combined Dictionary Thesaurus is also exactly what it says: a conventional dictionary with lists of synonyms and antonyms provided where relevant. As such, it claims to be an innovation. It's not. Almost exactly the same format is the basis of The Reader's Digest Oxford Wordfinder (published in 1993) which is more comprehensive and which (in my opinion) has clearer typography despite Chambers' use of tinted panels for its thesaurus functions.

The Chambers Combined is much less coy than the new Oxford. Indeed, its preface gets straight down to the business of register or the appropriacy of words to particular occasions. The editors, Martin Manser and Megan Thomson, point out the dangers of mixing the formal, colloquial and slang as in "Do you require the bog?" Those making their first use of a thesaurus will doubtless find the Concise Oxford the easier to use. However, Chambers has much to recommend it as a one-volume wordbook but, if you can afford another Pounds 8, consider the Oxford Wordfinder before investment.

None of these will however make me desert (abandon, jilt, renounce) my Bloomsbury Thesaurus which I reviewed here three years ago and continue to use regularly. Organised on Roget's framework but using late 20th century concepts, it really does help you to formulate (articulate, phrase, verbalise) your ideas.

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