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Tag Archives: thesaurus

I heard a news item on Radio 4 yesterday about the release of what would be the world’s largest thesaurus, drawing on entries from the Oxford English Dictionary. Seeing a message on Twitter linking to the news story ( I quickly RTed the good news; well, it is the sort of thing you would want to share isn’t it (humour me here).

I was delighted and somewhat surprised to receive a reply (from someone who’s blushes I shall spare) saying that they had misread the message and thought it was reporting the discovery of a new dinosaur.

Well, on hearing that an image of the creature popped into my head. The mighty and terrible Thesaurus Rex, running amok in the Glasgow Public Library heading for the reference section. Brave librarians try to fend him off with those wooden poles with the hooks on the end you use to open high windows, but to no avail. Now there’s nothing left of their Encyclopedia Britannica but  bits of chewed cover.

The story of the thesaurus is a gem. A project started in 1965 that grew on a diet of good ideas (“I know, why don’t we include this as well?” Ring any bells? Every been involved in a project like this?) At one point almost destroyed by a fire but saved from having being stored in a metal filing cabinet (and you can picture it can’t you, paint singed and blistered but defiant.) And now, after over forty years, it’s finally complete in all its blue cloth and gold-leaved glory. I’d actually quite like a copy but I’m afraid to even look at the price. Plus I don’t know if I can trust it in the same bookcase as my dictionary of physics.

I spent today in a long discussion on words and phrases and their meanings. Not an idle conversation but one aimed at updating a vocabulary, and then establishing a thesaurus, my particular interest.

For me, my interest in this started in a lunch queue. During a conference in Manchester a couple of years ago, I overheard the two people ahead of me listing all the different ways they had come across intending to convey the concept of widening participation. It was a surprisingly long list and, musing on other similar examples, got me thinking about how we ever understand one another at all, when we use multiple terms to describe one thing and between us ascribe multiple meanings to one phrase.

Added to that, the change of terms that seem to be sometimes no more than fashion, trying to establish a vocabulary that will last is no small task. The thesaurus that goes with it, built on the phases currently in use, is a way of dealing with those variations of phrase without prescribing how people should express themselves.