Posted by: jockmackenzie | October 7, 2009

The Thesaurus

Thesaurusitis P9280028

Beware of “thesaurusitis”

It’s a dreaded adolescent disease!

Most kids don’t suffer from ‘thesaurusitis’ because this particular malady can only be contracted after coming into direct contact with an actual thesaurus. Even given this immediate proximity to listings of synonyms (and antonyms – although some never actually notice this addition), some students remain healthy.

The victims tend to be the ones who are infatuated with the opportunity to expound with maximum verbosity. Some students think that BIGGER is better, l-o-n-g-e-r and BIGGER is better yet. Unfortunately they fail to grasp the concept of the term “synonym.” Definition (with my emphasis) – a word having the same or nearly the same meaning. It’s the nearly the same part that causes the problem.

I, myself, have been guilty of neglecting the thesaurus until the end of the term and then trotting it out at the last minute – just before the final achievement exam – the written one! In an effort to impress, even the student who would no more pick up a thesaurus than he would someone else’s litter decides it’s time for a walk into the wonderful world of words.

I don’t have any actual examples at hand but here are some that could have occurred:

You could tell by looking at her sad face that she was infelicity.

Smoke filled the sky causing it to be nebulous.

The grandpa picked up a treatise so he could read the bedtime story.

Knowing that the problem is likely to occur is half the battle. I warn my kids to watch out for thesaurusitis. I give them examples and alert them to the fact that words of similar meaning are not interchangeable.

I think there are three main thesauri/thesauruses (both apparently are accepted plurals):

1. My favorite is the thesaurus of the mind. It’s usually readily available and often the quickest reference. Students need to be encouraged to use it!

2. The written thesaurus. This type is prepared for a variety of audiences – some more elementary than others. I would suggest having several at different levels. When I moved back to the junior high/middle school ranks, I was aware of the thesauruses I had used with my grade fives so I got some to add to my middle school batch. Having the easier thesauruses definitely appealed to some students.

3. The on-line thesaurus. I have added to my Bookmarks Toolbar and will either use it or the thesaurus companion of The Visual Thesaurus is one option I haven’t tried but it may be worth a look.

Whichever thesaurus one uses, I would vote for creating exercises to give students an opportunity to tackle some simple writing that would benefit from closer inspection as to word choice. Here’s a sample of one I once used:


1. The tall man walked slowly.

2. The old woman laughed wickedly.

3. We saw a really good motion picture.

4. The seat was covered with dark brown leather.

5. The young man took all my money.

6. The police officer shot the deadly snake with his gun.

For the sake of variety, I also had my classes try taking old sayings and rewriting them into almost unintelligible gobbledegook by using the thesaurus. e.g. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks became It is difficult to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovative maneuvers. They enjoyed the exercise but I was always fearful that I was suggesting the thesaurus was a reference to be used to make writing harder to read.

In the spirit of “Do as I say, not do as I do”, try to get the thesauruses out as often as possible so kids know how to use them to their advantage before the year-end exams are upon you.

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