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Macmillan’s thesaurus is a bit different, unusual, special, and unique

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Written by Stan Carey

A thesaurus, as Macmillan Dictionary defines it, provides ‘lists of words that have similar meanings’. Look up say and you’ll find synonyms like speak, utter, voice, address, and so on. Since every word is different, with unique connotations, a thesaurus can help you find the one best suited to your needs.

Just mind how you use it. Some writers use a thesaurus willy-nilly (sense 2) to replace ordinary words with fancy ones, believing these to be more impressive, but that’s often a bad idea. Remember that the thesaurus, as Simeon Potter put it, is ‘a good reminder of words momentarily forgotten, but a bad guide to words previously unknown’.



Macmillan’s thesaurus, however, is different. For example: Some words, like software, don’t have many synonyms, but there are many types of software. If you look it up in Macmillan’s thesaurus you’ll find a list of examples of software, like CMS and patch. Similarly, if you look up thesaurus in the thesaurus you’ll see a list of book types.

These lists of related words help English language learners. Under suffix you’ll see a list of suffixes and their meanings, so anyone still learning English morphology can see at a glance what various suffixes mean and how they are used, such as –able, –ese, –ify, –proof, and –ward. Related words can also be useful for fiction writers seeking authentic detail on an area they’re not versed in. For everyone else, they’re interesting to browse.

That brings me to another feature. The thesaurus doesn’t just list synonyms or related words – it defines them right there. You don’t have to look them up separately in the dictionary to compare them; you can see all the relevant information in one place. It’s also laid out clearly. Screwdriver, for example, has two senses in the dictionary; you can click the thesaurus under sense 1 for a list of hand tools, and under sense 2 for cocktails and related words.

The thesaurus was devised and compiled by lexicographer Diane Nicholls, who aimed to integrate it thoroughly with the dictionary. She says it was ‘very much dictionary-led and grew organically’. Doing it all herself ensured that the style and categorisations were consistent, helped by the consistency of the definitions themselves. As Liz Potter wrote in a previous post, the thesaurus was designed to ‘mesh perfectly’ with the dictionary’s content.

Liz’s post also explains some recent changes to the thesaurus, such as links to antonyms. (Pop quiz: Can you name an antonym of antonym?) With these special features, Macmillan’s thesaurus is an admirable, impressive, stupendous resource. If you have yet to check, explore, or go through it, you’re in for a treat.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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