Waving the thesaurus around on Language Log

« previous post | next post »

In a modest way, I collect N-to-V conversions in English morphology, via zero derivation, -ize/-ise, -ify, and -ic-ate (brief discussion here). (My colleague Beth Levin has a much larger and better organized collection.) Some of these are long-established, and not particularly transparent semantically, but all of the patterns can be used to innovate verbs — and often incur peevish displeasure when they are. Why innovate?

Why, in particular, should Language Loggers — well, me and Mark Liberman — have reached for thesaurisize (my preferred spelling) or thesaurusize (Mark's) on occasion over the years?

The general story, told here, goes as follows:

The innovation and spread of lexical items very often is favored by considerations of brevity: items are invented by some people and adopted by others because they are more compact than earlier expressions. (And for some reasons not having to do with formal considerations: they have the virtue of novelty, suggesting fashion, ostentatious cleverness, or playfulness; and they usually have the virtue of contextual or social specificity, via ties to specific contexts, like sports, journalism, business, radio/television, the tech world, gaming, etc., or to specific social groups, like young people, Australians, women, etc.)

But these innovations also frequently (perhaps almost always) have the virtue of semantic/pragmatic specificity. The innovations usually allow for shadings of meaning that are fuzzed over in the older expressions (which, typically, have radiated and generalized in their meanings over the years).

(Of course, what are virtues in one person's eyes are ugly defects in another's.)

The Language Log story, as far as I've been able to reconstruct it, goes as follows:

1. My first use of thesaurisize, on 11/17/04 in "Not a word!" (link), merely conveyed 'search in a thesaurus, use a thesaurus to find near-synonyms':

Fiske's entry declares sternly that trepidatious is "solecistic for fearful (and similar words)"; he offers uneasy and anxious as well as fearful. A bit of thesaurisizing for the noun trepidation provided the following alternatives to trepidatious: agitated, alarmed, anxious, apprehensive, dismayed, fearful, frightened, hesitant, reluctant, timid, uneasy.

Thesaurisizing has the virtue of brevity; but the synthetic compound thesaurus-searching is equally short. Presumably I went for a nominalization of the verb thesaurisize for its novelty value, though I can't really reconstruct my motivations from six years ago.

Then on 10/30/08 in "Periods" (link), I used thesaurisize for a more specific sort of thesaurus-searching, namely looking for synonyms to vary the vocabulary in writing:

One of the facts of life in teaching is that every field necessarily has its own set of concepts, and terminology to go along with them, and students have to learn that — even though they've been taught to vary their vocabulary and not just keep using the same words over and over again (good advice, but it has its limitations) — there's very little wiggle room with technical terms. Thesaurisizing is a really bad move.

There are other Google hits (not from Language Log) for thesaurisize in approximately this sense, and apparently even more for thesaurize in this sense. (The OED has no modern cites for either verb, in any of the possible spellings.)

Mark Liberman entered the thesaurus stakes on 12/6/04, in "Overpermissive quotatives: grammar change or thesaurusizing?" (link), using thesaurusizing "to describe the process of replacing words with fancier equivalents in order to impress readers", as he put it in a later posting. Again, a more specific meaning.

In this later posting, "Native language? Plagiarism" of 1/22/07, Mark was interested in yet another more specific reading, asking the question, "Is there a word for thesaurus-driven mis-substitution to disguise authorship?" — a species of plagiarism that attempts to cover its tracks by re-wording. Mark collected suggestions, including thesaurism (also not in the OED), but casting his own vote for Ran Ari-Gur's lovely neologism text laundering (parallel to money laundering) in a posting the next day.

And there stands the state of thesaur{i,u}sizing on Language Log.



  1. Will Steed said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

    My intuition wants to call it thesaurising, but I don't believe I've ever actually used the word.

  2. Aaron Toivo said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    Perhaps partly because the final syllable is "size", I find the word immediately brings up a suggestive echo of the verb supersize, as in the old McDonalds commercials: supersize your order for only a dollar! Thesaurusize your term paper for a better grade!

    Because of that connection, I would have a hard time taking 'thesaurusize' as having any other meaning than to (pejoratively) refer to the way some people use a thesaurus to make their writing look fancier than necessary.

  3. empty said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 9:13 pm

    @Will Steed: You don't have a cite for thesaurize?

  4. Brian Buccola said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 10:25 pm

    My instinct would be to say thesaurize.

    Usually, when it comes to words of Latin and Greek origin, the -us ending, which is just the masculine nominative singular ending in Latin (and same goes for the -ος or -os in Greek) is dropped before adding any extra morphology. It's why we say fungal and not fungusal, for example.

    The reason is that morphemes are added to the base of the noun, which can be seen in the other grammatical cases, like genitive and accusative, as in corpus (nom.), corporis (gen.) –> corporal, not corpusal or corpal. The genitive of thesaurus is thesauri, so the base is simply thesaur-, hence thesaurize.

  5. Rod Johnson said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 11:20 pm

    I hear it as akin to botanize—browsing, perhaps slightly idly, the landscape of synonymy, rather than using the thesaurus to, as it were, fantasticate one's language ("thesauricating") (And, pace Brian, I like the soothing alternate stresses of thesaurisize better than thesaurize, which has a nasty stress clash to my ear.)

  6. Janne said,

    September 30, 2010 @ 11:49 pm

    I prefer thesaurinate. Occasionally perpetrated by serial thesaurinators, leading to charges of excessive thesaurination by professional thesaurinists.

    But then, I'm not a native speaker so what do I know.

  7. dirk alan said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 12:18 am

    archeologist uncover the saursis.

  8. Sid Smith said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:02 am

    "me and Mark Liberman — have reached"

    Gasp! (Actually, I'd love to think that you're just being demotic.)

  9. Xmun said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:23 am

    Now, now, that's just being naughty. Place it in context:

    "Why, in particular, should Language Loggers — well, me and Mark Liberman — have reached . . ."

    Perfectly good Informal, if you ask me. The alternative, "well, Mark Liberman and I", would have been a little too stuffy.

  10. iching said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 3:29 am

    I like thesaurinate but for me it would have a humorous element. The urinate in thesaurinate would jump out at me and I would find it impossible to resist pronouncing as "thesau-urinate". But maybe that was what you intended. If so, that's quite clever :)

  11. Andrew said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 5:44 am

    My own verbing instinct comes up with "thesaurize" as well, and I agree with Brian Buccola on the reason why it makes sense to me.

    I don't know the proper term (it must be related to backformation), but sometimes we form words by applying existing rules in contexts that they weren't quite meant to apply to, not only could thesauros => thesaurizo have given rise to thesaurus => thesaurize (although it didn't), thesaurizo is a legitimate Greek word (albeit not with a meaning that has anything to do with books of synonyms).

  12. George said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 6:31 am

    My vote is for 'thesaurusize.' It is transparent and I like the sound pattern.

    But, my first question is why. Why are we motivated to thesaurusize? It would seem if we have the precise word we need, why would we not want to repeat as often as needed.

    My second question is, is thesaurization universal?

  13. empty said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 7:04 am

    Still no cite for -saurize?

    (Sorry, I just don't think anyone got it the first time.)

  14. pj said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 7:21 am

    @empty – I certainly didn't, but I do now. Very good. (Definitely better without 'the-')

  15. George said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 7:24 am

    I feel that the question in my previous post needs elaboration. I am referring to an aversion to repeating the same word in a context to close to the first which can motivate the need to thesaurusize.

    It could be, in some instances, a desire to display the depth of one's lexical inventory. But, I think there is something more basic and intuitive. Repetition of a word doesn't pass the 'sounds-right' test. And, there is a distance constraint. The closer, the greater the aversion.

  16. Alain Turenne said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:07 am

    Up to now, I would have used, in total good faith, "thesaurize" when I meant, in my own language, "thésauriser". Thanks for having enlightened me.

  17. iching said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    I think I would prefer thesaurize except that Google Books tells me that in "An universal etymological English dictionary" (Nathan Bailey, 1724) it is defined as "to gather or lay up Treasure". Can anyone confirm if the OED has this?


    trans. To hoard, as treasure. Mostly fig.

    Also note thesaurosis, " A disorder of the lungs caused by the accumulation in them of inhaled material."]

  18. George said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:42 am

    @iching: Yes there is an OED entry for 'thesaurize':

    trans. To hoard, as treasure. Mostly fig.

    1594 Zepheria vi, My heart prepares anew to thesaurize Sighs and loue options. a1610 J. SEMPILL in S. Ballatis (1872) 244, I was resoluit to thesaurize my greeife. Ibid. 247 et durst I not behold [? be bold]..But thesawriz'd my hiddin harmes. 1623 COCKERAM, Thesaurize, to gather riches. (Also in BLOUNT, BAILEY, etc.)

    Its etymology:
    [ad. late L. thsaurizre, ad. Gr. -, f. - treasure: see -IZE; cf. F. thésauriser (14th c. in Godef. Compl.).]

  19. George said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:48 am

    Whoops, my OED response crossed myl's in cyberspace.

  20. Rodger C said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:51 am

    "to gather or lay up Treasure": I was about to say, every Greek primer used to contain the sentence from the Sermon on the Mount, Μη θησαυριζετε θησαυρους επι της γης. (Where does Word hide the Classical font with the pre-1970s accents?)

  21. cameron said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    Thesaurisize the verb is fine, but I think I'd prefer thesaurisization over thesaurisizing as the noun form. I realize it's a bit longer, but it seems more natural to me, and would definitely be much more natural in the plural.

  22. groki said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    @George: Repetition of a word doesn't pass the 'sounds-right' test. And, there is a distance constraint.

    reminds me of the uncanny valley.

    words in the language stream usually vary, so the lack of variation can stick out for the listener/reader. also, for me repeating the same word or phrase can feel kind of like the bolding of text, and it distracts from the message if there doesn't seem to be a reason for it.

    btw, I'll give a shoutout for thesaurusificatize. completists represent!

  23. Mary Kuhner said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    Do Esperanto speakers thesaurisize? I would think that if any language lacked the esthetic principle "Don't repeat a significant word too many times" it would be Esperanto. (I originally wrote "it would be that one" so as not to repeat the word–it's really a powerful principle in English, at least for this monolingual native speaker.)

    I noticed when I was quite young that a word repeated too many times can seem silly and meaningless: I remember sitting on my grandmother's countertop at about age six saying "Cup!" over and over until it had lost all meaning and become ludicrous. Does this happen to speakers of all languages?

    (Currently writing a computer program which is obsessed with the word "epoch"–that one goes wonky very fast. I've started naming things e-this and e-that because I can't stand to type "epoch" anymore. In another week I will probably no longer be able to hear it as a meaningful word.)

  24. Rick said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

    The Urban Dictionary has two entry for "thesaurusize" ( http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=thesaurusize )

    From 2005 there is the definition "To replace words in a sentence, phrase, or song with other words that mean the same thing. Implies poor results, or dumbing down. This is a common practice among hymnal editors of some denominations, who are apparently among the most clueless humans walking the earth."

    And from 2009 there is the definition "Taking a sentence from a (generally) published source and using a thesaurus to change the words so as to avoid plagiarism."

    And, form another site ( http://www.classbrain.com/artteensm/publish/article_50.shtml ) there is this warning to students writing college admission essays: "Don't Thesaurusize Your Essay. Do Use Your Own Voice."

  25. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

    @George: "Elegant variation" is often annoying to me and equally frequently irritating to other people—but still others like it.

    @empty: Got it and liked it the first time.

    @Mary Kuhner: I think that happens to lots of people, maybe everybody. I don't know a name for it—does anyone? I've never heard of it doing permanent damage. I've seen it mentioned a number of times in literature, but the only example I can think of is the poem "Meditation at Lagunitas", by Robert Hass, which you can read here.

    (The link doesn't preview right. Hope I didn't mess it up.)

  26. George said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: "Elegant variation." Hmm. I not familiar with the term. Maybe you could explain.

  27. Xmun said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    @George: Read H. W. Fowler's article on it in the first edition of Modern English Usage (1928) and its reprints. The article goes on for more than five columns on pp. 130-133.

  28. Trish said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    @Jerry Friedman @Mary Kuhner: It's called semantic satiation or semantic saturation.

  29. Xmun said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    1926, I meant. I blame my fingers, not my memory.

  30. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 4:45 pm

    @Trish: Thanks!

    @George: Briefly, an example is my use in one sentence of "often annoying" and "frequently irritating", two different phrases that mean the same thing. There were better ways to avoid the repetition.

  31. George said,

    October 1, 2010 @ 8:35 pm

    @Jerry and Trish: Thanks for the information. I guess if we go one way, we risk annoyingly irritating some. But, if we go the other, we might annoyingly annoy others.

  32. Bertil Wennergren said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 7:26 am

    Mary Kuhner asked,

    "Do Esperanto speakers thesaurisize? I would think that if any language lacked the esthetic principle "Don't repeat a significant word too many times" it would be Esperanto."

    Well there are plenty of ordinary languages that lack that principle, which – as far as I know is mostly a western culture hangup. Actually it's not really a principle of a language, but rather of a culture. The Esperanto culture however does more or less have that estetic principle.

    The Esperanto word for "thesaur{u/i}size" (or whatever) would be "tezaurumi".

  33. Nightstallion said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 8:18 am

    I'd also prefer "thesaurize" (with stress on the initial syllable).

  34. Atmir Ilias said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    The –us ending, this may be in fact a form of the verb to be. I think it presents the old third person singular ,equivalent with the other forms: -os, is, es. Later on, they became –ist, isht (Tzam Albanian, German)), est (Latin, official Albanian), is (English) and –ost>osht (geg Albanian).
    The “Thesaurus” means, I think, “thesaur is”. “Thesaur” could be the synonym of the Italian noun “Tesoro”, which is a synonym with the Albanian word “thesar”, both related with the main word “oro”, which in English is the word “gold”, while in Albanian language is the word “ar”.
    The others concepts have to do with the Albanian language, respectively:
    -te means the general notion of the English -to, a direction of an action and the Albanian verb -Zë(ë-not voiced), which means the English verb “make”.
    The base meaning is “to make Gold”.
    The combination “ize>i ze” is the notion of “to make”,
    Based in the performances of the modern English, could be the best –thesaurusize, which in my eyes means “make it richer”.
    The following is the list of forms of the verb “zë” in the present tens:(I) -zë, -zë, -zë,(we) –zëm, zini, they-zën.

  35. a George said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 2:14 pm

    I do not at all like the way this has developed. I was a co-worker on a thesaurus, which was a tool to structure information searches. A given term (keyword) formed part of a hierarchy, having a broader term and narrower terms. To me any -ize or -ise connected with 'thesaur-' would mean to define that (or those, in the case of homonyms) hierarchy(-ies) for that particular term and enter that/them into the thesaurus. Thereby a structure was created that enabled either more specific searches or broader searches by means of Boolean structuring of the queries. The real intellect went into creating the thesaurus; the users were merely — users.

  36. Xmun said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 3:27 pm

    The sort of thesaurus used for controlled-vocabulary information searches is an utterly different beast from the sort we have been talking about, namely Roget's Thesaurus and its many successors and competitors, which writers use to find that word they know is the one they want but can't just now think of.

  37. Troy S. said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 5:37 pm

    -icize seems to have taken on a life of its own. Why not thesauricize? Preserves both the desired sound and the root of the noun.

  38. a George said,

    October 2, 2010 @ 7:27 pm

    @Xmun: is it any different from a crossword puzzle dictionary? I do not think it deserves a high-faluting expression to describe looking something up you have either forgotten or never known how to use. In other words, some want it to mean "to embellish your style of writing using borrowed feathers". Don't forget that "ubiquitous" was not really well-known in the broad population until Bell Telephones used it in an ad. Language develops very well on its own, thank you, so who am I to be prescriptive? But I still think it wrong to use something that sounds as if it is precise and useful for a mere tabular lookup. Entering a word into a word-treasure, now that is something different!

  39. Xmun said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 1:25 am

    @a George: I'm not familiar with crossword puzzle dictionaries (though I remember my late mother-in-law used to have one), so I'm afraid I can't answer your question. It seems to me, though, that the name "thesaurus" is not to be appropriated by the IT fraternity. Us ordinary Eng. Lit. types must be able to continue using it too for such works as Roget's.

    It occurs to me that "thesaurus" and "treasure" are related in much the same way as "presbyter" and "priest" are. Remember Milton: "New presbyter is but old priest writ large."

  40. a George said,

    October 3, 2010 @ 4:55 am

    @Xmun: I think we agree that the work is a Thesaurus and Roget probably was the father. And like dictionaries and encyclopaeidas, it is hard to put down once you have opened it with one purpose in mind, and you get sucked in. I only oppose the use of a bloated, scientific-sounding term to cover what is a mere look-up. I find your Milton-quote (which I shall try to remember) very apt.

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment