Thesaurus is the only word you can’t look up in a thesaurus
To start with the basics—what even is a thesaurus?
When most people think of thesauri they likely think of a style thesaurus, which includes websites like Thesaurus.com, or a books like Rogets Thesaurus, which offer similar or dissimilar alternatives to a word or phrase. For the word “Information” Thesaurus.com offers synonyms “advice”, “clue”, or “data”, and antonyms “ignorance”, “question”, “silence”.
When I talk about thesauri in these posts however, I will be talking about “information retrieval thesauri” (IRTs). IRTs are much more domain specific but (honestly) not too far removed from the concept of style thesauri.
An IRT is an information retrieval aid that (in theory) ensures that everyone means the exact same thing when they are using a term. While this might seem obvious when we speak of a “poodle” and a “Labrador retriever” it gets vastly more confusing when one considers trying to organize thousands or hundreds of thousands of items. Should a “labradoodle” (the offspring of a Labrador and a poodle) be considered a poodle or a Labrador for purposes of classification? What about a “Goldendoodle” (a golden retriever and a poodle)? How about a “Yorkipoo”? A “Pugapoo”? What about a “Cockapoo”, a “Maltipoo” or a “Poo-Shi”?
Pictured: A sandwich, probably.
(Image Description: A labradoodle, which is a medium-sized brown dog covered in brown hair. )
The variation in poodles rivals the stars.
Thesauri History (syn: past, antiquity, yesterday; ant: future)
While anyone might enjoy spending their day arguing over ‘poo taxonomy, it is not practical for the day to day operations of a business (or cultural heritage institution).
For some of the reasons outlined here sense why corporations dealing with long, complicated chemical names (2-acetoxybenzoic acid anyone?1) were the first to pioneer thesauri: DuPont Chemical created the first internal thesaurus in 1959.
A few years later, they were all the rage. Aitchison and Clarke note that:
the first widely available thesauri were the Thesaurus of ASTIA Descriptors, published by the Department of Defense, 1960,9 and the Chemical Engineering Thesaurus published by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers. 2
Most thesauri use specific rules and vocabulary to guide both users towards specific material. For example, a thesaurus that says all material on sex work will be found under the term (“Sex Work”), will mean that users looking for material on prostitution, whoredom, gigolos, street walkers will find the material that they are looking for under that term. The rules governing how thesauri began to be formalized by the late 1960s, and the first edition of the international standard for monolingual thesauri was published in 1974.
The three basic rules that occur in thesauri are UF BT/NT and RT. 3
The next post in this series will discuss what these mysterious terms could be!
(cover image is of SNT’s spine, which reads Sexual Nomenclature: A Thesaurus. Copyright is held by the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections. )
Jean Aitchison and Stella Dextre Clarke, “The Thesaurus: A Historical Viewpoint, with a Look to the Future,” Cataloging and Classification Quarterly 37, no. 3/4 (2004): 7 ↩︎
Rolland-Thomas, Paule. “Thesaural Codes: An Appraisal of Their Use in the Library of Congress Subject Headings.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 16, no. 2 (August 13, 1993): 71–91. https://doi.org/10.1300/J104v16n02_05. ↩︎