Open book and a mug of tea on a table

Thesaurus as purpose in life

A thesaurus is a collection of  words organised to serve sense according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary. If we delve somewhat further into this definition we find that the etymology of the word thesaurus derives in Latin from the Greek word thesauros which means ‘treasure’. As a tool for the writer, a thesaurus is as indispensable as a dictionary. In our times most people seem to favour using search engines or apps in preference to having good solid books to refer to. Whilst there is nothing in particular wrong with utilising the advances in technology and to simply espouse a type of neo-ludditism is philosophically unattractive, we should consider deeply the advantages owning a dictionary and thesaurus provides the inquiring intellect.

Such considerations need to be supported by the experience of not just using these reference works but understanding how they work. If you just want to look up a word for the purpose of spelling accuracy then the digital solution is as appropriate as anything else. However, if you are a lover of language and find pleasure in learning more about the history of a word, its etymology, then a dictionary of quality is as good for your imagination as a well-crafted novel and enhances your comprehension as would any academic text. Once you have engaged your mind in the pursuit of this fantastic voyage of linguistic education, the inseparable twins of dictionary and thesaurus should ever sit readily to hand. For what you discover in the first, you expand and elaborate in the second. If a dictionary is about provenance then a thesaurus is about relationships.

We will start here by looking at our dictionary first. Once we have a reference point to its practical application we will then consider the thesaurus and explore its elegance and beauty.

Use of a dictionary has to be the primary tool of anyone interested in words, however, for those of us fascinated by language, its history and relationships, then ownership of a good dictionary is the keystone of all enquiries. The Concise Oxford Dictionary is my own book of choice, the detail and knowledge it contains being enough to provide for a truly comprehensive understanding of the English language. Delving through its pages and finding a word becomes exciting as you go on to discover the history of that word.

Before I bring the thesaurus into this small story here, let’s just have a look at how and why the history of a word opens up an enchanting world of comprehension. English is a beautiful language because within the vocabulary we find the history of our land, the United Kingdom. This elegance of thought is nowhere better displayed than in the study of toponymy.

Toponymy is the study of the meaning of place names. The word itself derives from two Greek words; topos; place and onoma; name. This academic pursuit reveals a world of history written into our landscape and captured in how we name our places. For example, Oxford may appear obvious when you think about it but the thing about place names is that we use them in the every day and attribute location to the word rather than meaning. The ford where the oxen were crossed to bring them into a market was the obvious way to name the place long before a brick building existed.

In the history of our islands, populations have been dynamically changed by invasion and immigration. Our original language was Old Welsh and all over our maps, we can find names of places which contain this Welsh ancestry. In the Hertfordshire town of Welwyn, it is quite easy to spot this root, Welwyn being the Welsh for ‘Willow’, and immediately understand that this has been a place lived in for thousands of years. Yet such has been the flow of people that in order to become a toponymist, someone adept in the study of place names in the U.K., knowledge of many languages is required. There is the obvious need for Old Welsh, Latin, Saxon German, Old Norse, Old English, Old French, Church Latin just to get a starting point in the subject. Norman French, Dutch and the Scandinavian language variations plus others all play their part. To be a toponymist is to be an expert in multiple languages.

However, it is not just that our history is written into our naming of the landscape, as each new culture arrived the elasticity of everyday speech had to adapt to different social power variations. Before the Norman invasion in 1066, the dominance in our words for food was in the Germanic Saxon. Cow [OE cu f. Gmc], Boar [OE bar f. WG], Ewe [OE eowu f. Gmc] and Hen [OE henn f. WG]. These were the ‘food’ language of the subjugated farmers but for the new French-speaking Norman overlords, when the food arrived at their tables as meat it became Beef [OF boef], Pork [OF porc], Mutton [OF moton] and Poultry [OF pouletrie]. In this vocabulary of meat, we find that the way we differentiate between the farm animal and the supermarket meat pack is an old memory of the Norman invasion over a thousand years ago.

All of this history, all of this information is to be found inside a good quality dictionary. Within this reference work, we find that our words are filled with meanings we may not suspect. From the answers we find, we can trace a story of our words back through time and cultures long forgotten. In our researches, we find that words we thought of as familiar friends were much more than we ever suspected. Perhaps we can more easily click a search button but are we not then happily ceding part of our own intellectual development to dull, cold process? Surely it is possible to see the effects the digital memory has on the human memory? Like a sponge, it sucks out our ability to transact our inquiries towards solutions and thereby renders our skill set diminished by the simple provision of one answer to one question.

When answers are so simply provided and the provision requires a lack of effort other than to press a key, are we not losing something of the understanding and ability to control and manipulate our own inquiries? How does such a disconnect of process impact on the ability for critical inquiry if we accept the first answer our search engine provides? In what way do we create legitimate provenance or evidence if all we have is a question and an answer? Whilst the benefits of the technology of our times is indisputable, it is not wise to simply ignore the negative impacts or even worse, be blind to any idea that balance can only be achieved with positive and negative forces.

Again, we need to be clear we do not fall into the trap of neo-Ludditism, where we throw out an idea or facility because of a fear of progress. The purpose here is not to simply dismiss the role of search engines and digital technology but to avoid vesting in its hands all of the possibilities and potentials the human mind possesses when making inquiries. On the desk on which this article is being written, there sits a dictionary, a thesaurus, a smartphone and a computer screen. Each device provides a rich resource and when used in combination these resources prove to be robust and powered by a necessary critical approach to knowledge.

In that critical approach, we seek out what is known as academic rigour. Simply put, we look to make sure that what we say and write can be proven, that it is a ‘true’ statement or use of what we know. What our books give us in this process is the discipline of research; we have to make the time to physically search the pages, read the text, take on board the different levels of meaning and comprehend the additional information provided. The real boon is in that need to not just click a button and get an instant solution but to be disciplined enough to search the book physically. This takes more time and that is exactly the point. As our time becomes ever more condensed by our digital technologies are we not losing our patience and our fortitude? Taking time to achieve a goal has never in previous history been considered as anything less than a virtue.

Now here we have a word, ‘virtue’, and our dictionary tells us it means moral excellence, uprightness and goodness. We find that the etymology of this word is Middle English [ME] from [f] Old French [OF] vertu from [f] Latin [L] virtus – tutis from [f] vir man. In this path, we see the hint that virtue is an ideal form of our humanity. So now we go to our treasure, our thesaurus, and there we look to expand the relationships around this word ‘virtue’.

From our thesaurus and its treasure of words, we find the following list of synonyms; morality, high-mindedness, honour, goodness, justness, righteousness, fairness, integrity, right-mindedness, honesty, probity, uprightness, rectitude, decency, worth, worthiness, nobility, character and respectability. As we let these gems fall into our hands and watch them sparkle they shed a rich tone of light onto this word ‘virtue’. In probity and rectitude, we find similar but slightly different aspects which provide a fuller understanding of meaning; a broad, plump, rich integrity of sense.

Against some of the synonyms are placed in prefix a small degree symbol. This sign denotes other possibilities, it tells us that it would be of value to search this synonym as a primary word in its own right. And so the chase begins. Turning the pages until we come across the entry for ‘probity’ we find a list of synonyms in which some are identical to those under ‘virtue’. However, it is in those that are different that we start to find a more nuanced understanding of these ideas behind the word. Probity adds to the relationships, equity, sincerity and justice. The book, the thesaurus, is being used, hands are manipulating pages, eyes are scanning text, synapses are making connections, there is a smell of the book filling the nostrils and somehow, this act of reading a book transports you into the world of the interior being.

Inside this world, we find a contentment, even a sense of peace. People on journeys by train, coach or plane can, still today, be seen to be reading a book. Their chosen work is the method by which they escape the monotony of the moment. As they realise the words of text as images within their mind, these books create a quiet space even within the rattle of a train or the roar of a plane. Books have an immersive quality which is not unique in itself, you can be immersed in watching a video on YouTube on your phone, but is specific in nature to the physicality and materiality of reading a book. An experience which is precisely different to the digital experience. Different but not necessarily better, to try and make direct comparisons is as pointless as it is unnecessary. That the difference exists is all we need to understand, that the difference is sometimes subtle is the only substantive challenge to our perception.

In these subtleties, we find why having a hard copy thesaurus and dictionary is such a personal advantage. Much of what they show us can be revealed by a search engine. Wikipedia will provide a very detailed description of virtue and an online dictionary will bring up not just the definition of virtue but also synonyms and antonyms as well as all sorts of other small treats. In our contemporary world, we are constantly in need to squeeze time into purposes of urgency.

Our human lives have grown more averse to slowness, in traffic we rage, in queues we complain, in waiting we become aroused to outbursts. As we load our memory into the digital memory, emptying our humanity into ones and zeros, we become conditioned by immediate responses. If our computer screen takes three seconds to respond to the input of a question or request we bemoan our service provider or believe our device is breaking down. We converse at a much faster speed, few people, if any, talk in measured words and even if they tried considered speech most people would not listen. They are not really listening to anyone, just talking as fast as they can in an attempt to hide from mortality by squeezing much of nothing into each empty moment.

“I haven’t got the time.” They cry in justification when, by any really accurate assessment of our lives, our time is the one thing we definitely, fundamentally own. Time is all we are and if we choose to spend it quickly then one day we will awake for the last time and start to wonder where it all went and what it all meant. Our books are our anchors which keep us from being wholly sucked up into the machine. These weighty tomes keep us safe not solely through the ink which sits raised on their pages but by their own demands on us.

These books will yield nothing in an instant. They will not give you an easy path through their knowledge and stories. Our dictionary and thesaurus invite us to slow down, to put in a particular effort, to resist the rush, to draw back from the maelstrom and to engage with ourselves and our inner being in an organic celebration of touch and sight and smell and sound. A book does not need you to plug in. A book asks you to define yourself, to quantify your life and the way you want to be. A book enchants your soul and in a moment when you sit back and think about what you have read, you realise that the treasure of words is the foundation of our humanity. This very humanity we are transferring to the digital cyberspace within which our future is being speeded up.

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