10 Fascinating Facts About the Thesaurus for National Thesaurus Day

iStock.com/LeitnerR
iStock.com/LeitnerR

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. Its name comes from the Greek word for treasure.

Greek lettering.
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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean "treasure." It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. You can call them thesauruses or thesauri.

Row of old books lined up.
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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses to octopi to octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. Early thesauruses were really dictionaries.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes's books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A Greek historian wrote the first book of synonyms.

Stacks of books surrounding an open book and a pair of glasses.
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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. An early Sanskrit thesaurus was written in the form of a poem.

Sanskrit lettering.
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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A British doctor wrote the first modern thesaurus.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
Thomas Pettigrew, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. The thesaurus has a surprising link to a mathematical tool.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
Joe Haupt, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log-log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log-log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. The Oxford English Dictionary has its own historical thesaurus.

Synonyms for
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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. One artist turned his love of words into a series of thesaurus paintings.

Mel Bochner,
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. There's an urban thesaurus for all your slang synonym needs

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
Effie Yang, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course. The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

New Google Earth Feature Lets Users Listen to Endangered Indigenous Languages From Around the World

prabhjits/iStock via Getty Images
prabhjits/iStock via Getty Images

According to UNESCO, at least half of all languages spoken around the world are on track to disappear by the end of this century. Most of these languages are spoken by indigenous populations whose number of native speakers get smaller with each generation. New technology can help preserve these native tongues: A social media campaign launched in 2013 aimed to preserve the Sami language of northern Europe, and a 2016 interactive web game focused on the Marra language of aboriginal Australians. The latest of these efforts comes from Google Earth, and it promotes not one, but 50 threatened languages.

As Smithsonian reports, the Celebrating Indigenous Languages project allows Google Earth users to listen to audio clips of languages as spoken by their native speakers. Just head to the webpage and select one of the markers on the world map to hear people respond to different prompts.

Rahamatu Sali of Cameroon recites her favorite proverb in Fulfulde: "For who does not see what is happening today, cannot see what is going to happen tomorrow." Bivuti Chakma of Bangladesh tells listeners how to say mother in Chakma, and in Canada, Aluki Kotierk sings a traditional song in her native Inuktitut. The platform also includes brief descriptions of each language, including the level of threat it faces.

The languages sampled for the project are just a fraction of all the endangered languages spoken on Earth. Of the 7000 languages spoken today, roughly 4000 of them are limited to indigenous communities. Various efforts are being taken to preserve disappearing languages, but sharing them with a wide audience online is one simple way to raise awareness of the issue.

[h/t Smithsonian]

15 Words for Gossips and Chatterboxes

Sheikoevgeniya/iStock via Getty Images
Sheikoevgeniya/iStock via Getty Images

We all know someone who never seems to stop talking. They’re a yammerer, a babbler, a chatterbox—but they’re also a blatherskite, a clatterfart, and a twattle-basket, as well as a “clucking magpie” and a “seller of gossip."

1. Babliaminy

Babble has been used to mean “to talk excessively” since the mid-13th century at least; the word babliaminy, coined by the English playwright Thomas Middleton, was derived from it in 1608. You can also call an incessant babbler a babelard, a bablatrice, and …

2. Babble-Merchant

… an old English slang word, literally meaning “someone who sells nonsense noise.”

3. Blatherskite

Blatherskite or bletherskate is a 17th century word, probably originating in Scotland, that combines the verb blether or blather, meaning “to talk incessant nonsense,” and skite or skate, meaning “a sudden quick movement.”

4. Blatteroon

Derived from blaterare, a Latin word meaning “to chatter” or “babble,” blatteroon or blateroon first appeared in English in the mid-1600s.

5. Bloviator

Popularized by President Warren G. Harding (who probably picked it up from local Ohio slang in the late 19th century), the word bloviate is now taken to mean “to speak verbosely or long-windedly”­—and someone who does precisely that is a bloviator.

6. Clatteran

As a verb, you can use clatter to mean “to disclose secrets,” or “to chatter or gossip,” and clatteran—alongside clattern and the next word on this list—are all derivatives of that.

7. Clatterfart

According to one Tudor Latin-English dictionary from 1552, a clatterfart is someone who “will disclose any light secret.” In other words, a gossip or a blabbermouth.

8. Clipmalabor

Clipmalabor is an old Scots word for a gossip or a chatterbox, or according to the Scottish National Dictionary, “a senseless silly talker.” It’s a corruption of the earlier Scots word slip-ma-labor, which referred to a lazy slacker or idler who would literally let their work (i.e. their labor) “slip.” Ultimately, its original meaning was probably something along the lines of “someone who gossips while they should be working.”

9. Gashelbike

Gashle is an old dialect word meaning “to twist something out of shape,” while bike or beik is an old Scots derogatory term for a person’s mouth. And if you’re twisting your mouth out of shape by incessantly talking, then you’re a gashelbike.

10. Jangler

Long before it came to mean a jingling, clinking noise, the word jangle was used to mean “to talk excessively or noisily,” or “to dispute angrily.” It’s probably derived from an old French word meaning “to jeer” or “grumble,” and so a jangler was probably originally a constant, vocal complainer as much as a chatterer.

11. Jawsmith

Dating back to the 1880s at least, the word jawsmith began life as late 19th century American slang for a chatterbox, but ultimately it came also to be used to refer to a proficient or professional talker or orator, or a vociferous leader or demagogue.

12. Languager

This word is derived, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, from an old French word, langagier, meaning “to talk abundantly.”

13. Pratepie

Prate has meant “to chatter” since the 15th century, and probably originally referred to the clucking of hens and poultry. The “pie” of pratepie comes from magpie, a bird that, like many other members of the crow family including jackdaws, jays, and choughs, has long been seen as a proverbially very vocal, garrulous creature.

14. Tongue-Pad

The word tongue-pad first appeared in English in the late 1600s, and was defined in A Dictionary of the Canting Crew in 1699 as “a smooth, glib-tongued, insinuating fellow.” That meaning had changed by the time it was added to Webster’s Dictionary in 1913, which defined it as “a great talker; a chatterbox.”

15. Twattle-Basket

What we would now called tittle-tattle was once also known as twittle-twattle in 16th century English, and derived from that, a twattle-basket is someone full of useless, idle chatter.

This list first ran in 2016 and was republished in 2019.

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