10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

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, octopi, and 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' 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 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.

12 Old-Timey Turkey Terms to Bring Back This Thanksgiving

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iStock.com/westernphotographs

Want to spice up conversation this Thanksgiving? Use these terms while you’re talking turkey.

1. RUM COBBLE-COLTER

According to A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew, in its several tribes, of Gypsies, beggers, thieves, cheats, &c., with an addition of some proverbs, phrases, figurative speeches, &c., first published in the late 1600s, a cobble-colter is a turkey. A rum cobble-colter, on the other hand, is "a fat large cock-turkey."

2. I GUESS IT’S ALL TURKEY

This American phrase is “a quaint saying indicating that all is equally good.”

3. AND 4. BUBBLY-JOCK AND BOBBLE-COCK

Bubbly-jock is Scottish slang for a male turkey, from the noise the bird makes. The term can also be used to describe “a stupid, boasting person.” Both usages might apply at your Thanksgiving dinner. Slang for a turkey in northern England, meanwhile, is bobble-cock, according to The Slang Dictionary: Or, The Vulgar Words, Street Phrases, and "Fast Expressions” of High and Low Society, published in 1864.

5. TURKEY MERCHANTS

According to 1884’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological, Historical, and Anecdotal, this was a term for “dealers in plundered or contraband silk.” Previously, it referred to something more obvious: “a driver of turkeys and geese to market.”

6. ALDERMAN

A “well-stuffedturkey. An alderman in chains is a turkey with sausages; according to A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, published in 1788, the sausages “are supposed to represent the gold chain worn by those magistrates.”

7. COLD TURKEY RAP

According to Eric Partridge's A Dictionary of the Underworld: British and American, this 1928 term means "an accusation, a charge, against a person caught in the act." Perhaps you'll get a cold turkey rap for stealing seconds—or thirds—of your favorite dish this holiday.

8. BLOCK ISLAND TURKEY

An American slang term for salted cod, originating in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

9. TURKEY PUDDLE

Eighteenth-century slang for coffee.

10. SNOTERGOB

According to A Dictionary of the Scottish Language, snotergob is “the red part of a turkey’s head.”

11. RED AS A TURKEY COCK

This phrase dates back to 1630, according to Dictionary of Proverbs. It could refer to any kind of flushing of the face (including, perhaps, when your dad and your uncle are getting too worked up debating politics).

12. TO HAVE A TURKEY ON ONE’S BACK

According to the 1905 book A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, this is what you say when someone has imbibed a bit too much: It means “to be drunk.”

40 Clever Words That Begin With the Letter C

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The letter C is a modern-day descendent of the Ancient Greek letter gamma, and as such originally represented a “g” sound rather than “k.” The Romans, however, confused everything; they typically used their letter C to represent both “g” and “k” sounds, avoiding the letter K (which was descended from the Greek kappa) almost entirely. Having one letter to represent multiple sounds proved confusing, and so Roman scribes invented a new letter, G, to represent “g,” which freed C to represent the “k” sound. So when the Roman alphabet was introduced to England, C was originally used for all instances of the “k” sound—as in cyng (Old English “king”), sticca (“stick”), lician (“like”), cneow (“knee”), and cniht (“knight”).

Just as things were starting to settle down, along came William the Conqueror. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the English language adopted a number of words from French in which the Latin letter C was now being used to represent a “s” sound, like city, citizen, and circle. Old English speakers were now facing the same problem that the Romans had had, as their letter C was being used for two entirely different sounds. Ultimately, C typically came to be used in all the “s”-sounding words (known as “soft-C”), while the Greek K was rescued from the linguistic scrapheap and began to be used for the “hard-C” words.

This all means that C isn’t used as much today as it was in Old English [PDF], but you can still expect it to account for around 2.5 percent of a page of written English, and it accounts for 3.5 percent of all the words in a dictionary—including the 40 clever C-words collected and collated here.

1. CABBY-LABBY

Also called a cabby-lab, cabby-labby is an old Scots dialect word for a noisy quarrel or disagreement in which everyone involved is speaking at the same time. Should you ever need to, you can also use cabby-labby as a verb, meaning “to argue” or “to disagree.”

2. CACAFUEGO

Borrowed into English in the 1600s, a cacafuego or cacafugo is a blustering, swaggering boaster. It literally means “fire-pooper” in Spanish.

3. CACHINNATE

Derived from Latin, cachinnation is loud or raucous laughter, and to cachinnate is to laugh loudly or immoderately. Something that is cachinnatory, incidentally, makes you cachinnate.

4. CACOLOGY

Cacology literally means “evil-speaking,” and is used to refer to a poor choice of words or noticeably bad language. Likewise, a caconym is an ill-fitting or unpleasant name; a cachotechny is a poorly constructed device or work of art; and a cacotype is either a printing error, or a libelously insulting printed description or account.

5. CAIN-COLORED

Because the Cain of Cain and Abel is supposed to have had red hair, Shakespeare coined the term Cain-colored in The Merry Wives of Windsor to describe someone with a fair, reddish-colored beard.

6. CALAMISTRATION

A formal word for the process of curling your hair.

7. CALIDITY

Derived from the same root as calorie, if something is calid then it’s warm, and so calidity is simply another name for warmth or heat. A caliduct is a pipe for conducting hot air or heated water, as in a radiator.

8. CALLOMANIA

Someone who thinks that they’re more beautiful than they really are is a callomaniac. Someone who is calophantic, likewise, pretends to be better than they really are.

9. CAMAIEU

Derived from the French for “cameo,” a camaïeu is a monochrome work of art, particularly one in which the color used is not one found in whatever is being portrayed (like a black-and-white image of a bright green apple, or a blue-and-white portrait of a person). By extension, the term camaïeu can also be used metaphorically to refer to any dull or predictable literary work.

10. CAPRICORNIFY

Whereas goats themselves have long been considered symbols of lecherousness and libidinousness, goats’ horns are, for some reason, considered a symbol of unfaithfulness and infidelity. One explanation suggests that goats are such proverbially foolish animals that they’re utterly unaware that they even have horns at all—just as the partner of an unfaithful lover is utterly unaware of their other half’s infidelity. Another theory points to the celebratory “horns” given to Roman soldiers returning home from successes on far-flung battlefields—only to find that they’ve been away from home so long that their wives have left them and moved on. Whatever the reason behind it, the association between goats’ horns and unfaithfulness is the origin of the word capricornify, which means “to cheat on your lover,” or, oppositely, “to be cuckolded or cheated on.”

11. CATACHTHONIAN

The adjective chthonian is usually used to mean “pertaining to the Underworld,” but the derived term catachthonian, or catachthonic, is simply another word for “underground” or “subterranean.”

12. CATACUMBAL

If the room you’re in feels like a catacomb, then it’s catacumbal.

13. CATAPHASIS

Cataphasis—a Greek word literally meaning “affirmation”—is a rhetorical device in which someone draws attention to a person’s bad points by ostensibly glossing over them; unlike other rhetorical devices that do the same thing (known as paralipsis), in a cataphasis the speaker makes it abundantly clear that the bad points in question absolutely exist, as in “I’m not going to mention the fact that he got fired for misconduct yesterday …” or, “but let’s not start talking about how she capricornifies everyone she’s ever gone out with …” If you’re the person being alluded to in the cataphasis, of course, you might want to consider responding with a …

14. CATAPLEXIS

… which is another rhetorical term, referring to a speech or pronouncement in which someone threatens revenge.

15. CATCH-FART

So-named because they’re supposed to walk so closely behind the person they admire, a catch-fart is an ingratiating, toadying sycophant.

16. CATERWISE

Derived from the French number quatre, cater is a 16th century word for the four on a die or in a pack of cards. Derived from that, to cater means to walk or move along a diagonal path, while to position something caterwise or cater-cornered means to place it diagonally.

17. CHABBLE

The chabble is the slight undulation on the surface of the sea, or of a liquid in a large vessel.

18. CHATTER-WATER

An old Yorkshire dialect nickname for weak tea.

19. CHILIAD

The smaller and lesser-known partner of the word myriad is chiliad. So while a myriad is literally a group of 10,000, a chiliad is a group of 1000. A chiliagon, ultimately, is a shape with 1000 sides; a chiliarch is the leader of 1000 men; and a chiliarchy is a government or ruling body formed from 1000 individual members.

20. CHIONABLEPSIA

A medical name for snow-blindness, an affliction of the eyes caused by the reflection of sunlight on snow or ice.

21. CHUMBLE

A 19th century word meaning “to nibble” or “to gnaw.”

22. CIRCUMBENDIBUS

A 17th-century word for a circuitous, long-winded route or way of doing something.

23. CLAMIHEWIT

An 18th-century Scots dialect word for a bitter disappointment, or for a sound thrashing or beating. It’s thought to literally mean “claw-my-head” and oddly is unrelated to …

24. CLAMJAMPHRIE

… which is another old Scots dialect word variously used to mean “a rowdy crowd of people,” “worthless trivialities,” or “complete nonsense.” No one is quite sure where clamjamphrie comes from, but one theory claims that it might once have been a contemptuous nickname for a Highland clan.

25. CLIMB-TACK

Also called a climb-shelf, a climb-tack is a cat that likes to explore high shelves or hard-to-reach places. Metaphorically, it’s a naughty or mischievous child.

26. CLINOMANIA

Also known as dysania, clinomania is an obsessive desire to stay in bed or a total inability to get up in the morning. It’s etymologically related to …

27. CLINOPHOBIA

… which is the fear of going to bed. Other C-phobias include chromophobia (the fear of brightly-colored things), cheimaphobia (the cold), cryophobia (ice), cyberphobia (computers), cynophobia (dogs), and cneidophobia (insect stings).

28. COCKAPENTIE

Probably derived from cock-a-bendy, an old Scots word for an effeminate or priggish young man, a cockapentie is a man whose pride and shallowness compels him to live far beyond his means.

29. COLDBLOW

An old English dialect word for a freezing cold winter’s day. The wrong kind of day to be …

30. COLDRIFE

... If you’re coldrife then you’re susceptible to the cold, although the word can also be used figuratively to mean “spiritless” or “in need of cheering up.”

31. CORN-JUICE

19th century American slang for whisky.

32. COSP

The handle of a spade.

33. COTHROCH

An old dialect word (pronounced so that the roch part rhymes with loch) meaning “to work or cook in a disorganized or unsanitary manner.”

34. CRAFTY-SICK

Another Shakespearean invention, this time from Henry IV Part 2, meaning “pretending to be unwell.”

35. CREEPMOUSE

It mightn’t sound like it, but creepmouse was a 16th-century term of endearment, in particular for a young child or baby.

36. CROOCHIE-PROOCHLES

Probably a corruption of crooked and prickles, croochie-proochles is an old Scots dialect word for a feeling of discomfort that comes from sitting in a constricted, cramped position for too long.

37. CRUTLE

An old English dialect word meaning “to recover from a severe illness.”

38. CUCKOO-LAMB

As well as being another name for a late-season lamb, a cuckoo-lamb is a child born to older parents.

39. CUDDLE-ME-BUFF

An old Yorkshire word for alcohol, particularly when it’s been warmed or sweetened.

40. CULF

All those loose feathers and bits of fluff that come out of pillows and cushions? That’s the culf.

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