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WHEN YOU NEED A WORD

When I was young I never seemed to need a thesaurus. Words appeared on command, and anyway using a thesaurus seemed like cheating. But verbal fluency seems to have deserted me with the other certitudes of youth, and I’ve increasingly come to rely on the first edition of the Macquarie Thesaurus, published in 1984.

By Gillian Dooley

Now there is a second edition, companion to the fourth edition of the Macquarie Dictionary. I asked Susan Butler from the editorial team why we have a new edition of the Thesaurus now, while there have been four editions of the Dictionary, with the fifth on the way. “Thesauruses travel more slowly than dictionaries.

The emphasis on the dictionary is on new words, whereas in the thesaurus the emphasis is more on core vocabulary. If you want to know what a carbon footprint is, you’d look it up on the dictionary, not the thesaurus. That said, the project has ‘been on the back burner for about ten years”.

With advances in computer database technology, it has become much easier to generate a thesaurus from a dictionary. “With a thesaurus, you’re basically setting up shoeboxes and flinging words from the dictionary into them, and computer systems have made this much easier,” says Butler.

Both the dictionary and the thesaurus are getting bigger. “There are roughly 3000 new words and 2000 new meanings in each new edition of the dictionary. Each word in the dictionary is not necessarily in the thesaurus, because not all words have the kind of meaning which allows for synonyms.” And words aren’t dropped, either.

They might be tagged obsolescent or archaic but they’re still listed. There is no censorship, but the synonyms are sorted into formal and informal, with asterisks marking words that ‘may give offence’, whether because the word is offensive in itself, or only when used in a particular sense.

Many of the new words in the dictionary (and therefore in the thesaurus) come from IT and other burgeoning technologies. Diseases and cures, fashion, and political buzzwords provide a constant stream of neologisms, and “the environment is a huge growth area in language,” Butler says. “I was interested in the effect of globalisation.

The influence of American English has been felt since the World War II, and is showing steady rather than dramatic growth. Australian youth have their own catachrestic way of interpreting some new American expressions. ‘A phrase like ‘booty call’ (a date arranged solely for the purpose of casual sex) comes from Black American English boody meaning ‘body’.

This has been reinterpreted by young Australians to refer to booty, meaning ‘plunder’ or ‘treasure’, so though it means the same thing in effect, the connotations in Australia are slightly different,” Butler says.

I expected that the influx of migrants to Australia over the past 50 years or so would have affected the language, but, Butler says, “most of the new words are words for food and drink. We’ve acquired new words for breads, cheeses and so on. But it doesn’t go much further.

We’ve learned a little about Islamic society, but minority groups don’t tend to affect the language greatly – the influence usually goes the other way, with new migrants doing their best to learn the ways of mainstream society.”

The arrangement has changed slightly since the first edition. Antonyms used to be paired, so you’d get pleasant/unpleasant, or closeness/remoteness, for example, in the same entry. This change makes sense: as Butler says, “antonyms are so often difficult, and it seemed unnecessarily complicated to pair words in this way. It’s more direct just to look up the concept you want in alphabetical order, or in the index.” However, it would have been helpful to include antonyms in the list of related words at the end of each entry.

In the preface, General Editor Richard Tardif points out that the scheme of the Thesaurus, though differing in organisation from Roget’s, is strangely congruent, numerically speaking. ‘There are 809 keywords in the Macquarie. Roget had 1000 entries at this keyword level, and most comparable works published since tend to have between 800 and 1000 entries.

It is tempting to speculate that this number … represents some sort of natural division of the language.” Apparently there hasn’t been much work done on this intriguing notion yet. It would be interesting to compare thesauruses of other languages, and perhaps other schemes for the organisation of concepts, like library subject headings and classification schemes.

Inevitably, there are odd juxtapositions and categorisations with which one might take issue. Baby Boomers and Gen X are included, but where are the yuppies and dinks? And I was quite taken aback to find ‘built like a brick shithouse’ among the synonyms for sexy.

Both the dictionary and the thesaurus are available online, for a modest annual subscription for individuals. But Butler believes that, though the online versions are great for ready reference, the full versions “are iconic books which show us our language and culture. The big dictionary will stay. It will always be in print.”

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Posted on 22 Nov 2007

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