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A History of the Thesaurus

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If you’ve seen Friends, you know the power of a thesaurus. It can turn, “They’re warm, nice people with big hearts” into “They’re humid, prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.” It can turn Joey into “baby kangaroo.” “Content” into “overjoyed.” “Sad” into “somber.” While thesauri are not always the best at getting the meaning quite right when suggesting alternatives to grade schoolers and adults alike, they are a word-lover’s treasure trove. And, funnily enough, treasure is exactly where the name comes from.

The Beginning

The word thesaurus as we understand it today has evolved over the years. From the Greek thēsauros, meaning “treasury” or “storehouse.” Those in the Middle Ages used the word “Thesaurer” to refer to a treasurer. The word thesaurus, back then, referred to places that stored the treasure we call words.

But, not quite in the “gathering of synonyms” kind of way. No, at first, it was used to describe what we’d think of today as dictionaries. In the 1590s, “thesaurarie” was a title given to early dictionary compilers. 16th century “printer to the king” Robert Estienne published the Thesaurus linguae latinae, which was a compilation of Latin words and their meanings. In 1572, his son, Henri Estienne, published a sequel of Greek.

While Philo of Byblos is said to have published “On Synonyms” in the 1st or 2nd century CE, the meaning of a compilation of synonyms rather than words with their definitions only took on the word “thesaurus” in the 19th century when Peter Mark Roget arrived in the publishing scene.

Roget and His Thesauri

English physician and philologist Peter Mark Roget was born on January 18, 1779. (Hence January 18 being Thesaurus Day!) After practicing medicine from 1808 to 1840, his retirement from work and his duties as Secretary to the Royal Society brought on free time to explore what he is now most known for. In 1852, Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was published. The first draft began nearly 50 years prior in 1805.

Since my retirement from the duties of Secretary to the Royal Society, however, finding myself possessed of more leisure, and believing that a repertory of which I had myself experienced the advantage might, when amplified, prove useful to others, I resolved to embark in an undertaking which, for the last three or four years, has given me incessant occupation . . .

Peter Mark Roget in the Preface to his Thesaurus

It featured 15,000 words organized conceptually, rather than alphabetically, into six categories: Abstraction Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, and Affections. Those grouped together were linked under these conceptual umbrellas, focusing on the relation of words rather than their definitions. Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases printed only 1,000 copies. As a fun treat, you can view the original manuscript on the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum website.

Modern Day Thesauri

Since 1852, Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print, though many, many updates have been made. With each iteration, it grows in size and popularity. And, in the years since, many other thesauri came along to join in the fray.

Now, there are two types of thesauri: general and specialized. The general category is what you think of when you think of a thesaurus. It’s Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Laird’s Webster’s New World Thesaurus, or Lindberg’s Oxford American Desk Thesaurus. These types of thesauri are likely what you encountered on your bookshelf in grade school, with no specific skew in what words are included.

Specialized thesauri, however, are narrowed down to the vocabularies and verbiage for a smaller group. These are mainly done for different professions like with Getty Institute’s Art and Architecture Thesaurus, the United States National Agricultural Library and United States Department of Agriculture’s NAL Agricultural Thesaurus, or Zuckerman’s Clinician’s Thesaurus

One major thesaurus of note is the Historical Thesaurus of English. A project that started in 1964 by the University of Glasgow and whose first edition was published in 2008, the HTE is a “complete database” of words from the earliest written records into the present day. It is the largest thesaurus in the world and the “first historical thesaurus ever produced for any language.” The second edition of the Historical Thesaurus of English launched in 2020 and is available to explore online.


I hope you learned something new about the history of the thesaurus today, Thesaurus Day!  If you’re in the mood to learn more literary history, why not read about the history of Poor Richard’s Almanac? Or, how about this history of the exclamation mark!