A thesaurus is a compilation of synonyms, words of the same meaning. A thesaurus also lists antonyms, words of opposite meaning. When you want to vary your vocabulary to hold the reader’s interest, the thesaurus is where to turn.
When you’ve written a word in a preliminary draft that is almost, but not quite, what you’re trying to say, the thesaurus offers words covering a range of meanings.
“Sure,” you may say, “I know how to use a thesaurus. When I need a synonym, I highlight the search word in MS Word, right-click, choose ‘synonyms,’ and boom, there’s my word choice list.” That exercise gets you a few choices, but did you realize that with a bit more patience you can often expand the list by then clicking “Thesaurus” in the pop-up box?
But That’s Only Part of the Story
Perhaps you have a labor law case and want to avoid a wearisome use of “employee.” Right-clicking in MS Word yields four synonyms for “employee.” There are more options online:
Or perhaps you prefer using a book. A modern “dictionary style” thesaurus lists search words alphabetically. Besides synonyms, some editions offer definitions and show how to use the word in a sentence. The version I checked offered 12 synonyms for “employee.”
Whether you are working online or with a book, you can expand the word choices by searching one of the suggestions to see further choices. Thesaurus.com lists synonyms alphabetically within color-coded hierarchies (red, dark orange, light orange) based on how close in meaning the subset is to the searched word. The “employee” search reveals nine synonyms in the first, red subset. But you might choose to click on “wage-earner” from the third, light orange subset. This leads to another set of synonyms, only some of which overlap the original query result.
Some books route you on your way by listing an important synonym in italics or bold. Among several editions, a search for “employee” pointed to “worker” for further research. Researching the emphasized synonym consistently produces the largest number of choices.
A Classical Thesaurus Is Nearly Impossible to Find
The original thesaurus grouped words logically (at least in theory) rather than alphabetically. Your best chance to find a classical thesaurus may be at an outlet or used book store. Be careful shopping online — many “original” versions are not; they are alphabetical. With a classical thesaurus, one first turns to the index, which offers choices directing the researcher to numbered sections. Synonyms for “employee” can be found in section 716, with more than 200 words comprising general references, including “performer,” “practitioner,” “worker,” “laborer,” “wage earner,” “breadwinner,” “servant,” and specific job titles, including scores of names for craftsmen, engineers, smiths, wrights and makers.
Because a classical thesaurus groups words with similar concepts, sometimes you can browse in nearby sections for a helpful word or phrase. Section 717 provides synonyms for “workplace.” This is especially useful when you need a similar concept rather than a word that exactly matches a meaning. Or if you’re a logophile (word lover) like me, you can browse for the pure enjoyment.
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