Where can I not find a synonym for the word...
May 21, 2008 6:57 AM   Subscribe

Where can I find a good online database that gives me similar meanings instead of just synonyms?

I'm constantly looking for more descriptive words to use in my writing but very often I cannot think of the precise word I'm looking for but I can think of a similar word with a different definition. The frustration begins when I go to look that word up at an online thesaurus I'm and consistently presented with more words that have a similar meaning to the one I looked up - which are as useless to me as the first term. Are there any synonym databases online that will give me terms that expand the meaning sideways so I can find the right word?

For example I'm trying to write about how the suspension of Habeas Corpus has rendered the Bill of Rights "meaningless" but meaningless is not the term I want to use I want a word that's not coming to me. I check an online thesaurus and it dutifully gives me words that can replace meaningless accurately like "senseless" and "pointless". Still not helping. So now I have to think of another word, I check "extinct" and I get lifeless, defunct, departed. Those don't work either. Toothless? Naaah, and there are no synonyms for that anywhere. Neutered gives me castrated and sterile - still no word that conveys exactly what I want to express.

See what I'm getting at? What I need is a database that will do this work for me by suggesting similar meanings in either direction along the line. Is there a website that does that or something close to it?

and don't think I don't get the irony of people reading this question and wondering "what is this guy talking about?"
posted by any major dude to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: "a similar" in the first paragraph should read as "the same".
posted by any major dude at 6:59 AM on May 21, 2008

Visual Thesaurus might do what you're looking for -- it's not free, but there's a free demo.
posted by ecsh at 7:20 AM on May 21, 2008

The way I usually deal with this requirement is to follow a chain of words in a thesaurus. Say, you look up meaningless, you get senseless as one of the options, so then you see what senseless gives you. In my print thesaurus it turns up, for example, five different categories, and I can browse through those to catatonic, quiescent, fatuous, asinine, futile, addled, inane etc. I actually think that (a) you might be happier with a print thesaurus, which will likely be much fuller than the extremely hamstrung online versions and (b) you maybe need to know more clearly what exactly you want to say , rather than hoping that a discovered word while concretise your fuzzy thought.
posted by londongeezer at 7:22 AM on May 21, 2008

while = will
posted by londongeezer at 7:22 AM on May 21, 2008

Have you tried the type of thesaurus that has numbered categories for everything? It may be that "Roget's Thesaurus" is the correct name for this. From the Wikipedia article:

"Roget's schema of classes and their subdivisions is based on the philosophical work of Leibniz".

Essentially, you look up your starting word in the back section; there are [usually] several numbers listed afterward, then you look in the front section for the number you want. There, your word is part of a whole structure of words related by different types of meaning, in a whole section on, for example, "emotions" or "activities".

I highly recommend an actual book for this. Get a nice big one. Books/paper are much better for browsing, rooting around, and the spoils of serendipity. Computers and databases, not so much. I wouldn't be surprised if no one's gone to the trouble to encode all those minute categorizations into a web app anyway.

My thesaurus is "The Original Roget's/Roget's International Thesaurus" and I _would not trade it_. Here it is on Amazon (although mine's only fifth edition... hmmm...).

If you already know about this, sorry -- but I know a _professional writer_ who hadn't heard of this, so here you go.
posted by amtho at 7:24 AM on May 21, 2008

You can sometimes find useful stuff on Wordnet, though it can be hit or miss. You want to check both see also and similar to for the best coverage -- they're not entirely consistently done.

I second the suggestion for a good thesaurus, if you are generally writing from the same location.
posted by jeather at 7:32 AM on May 21, 2008

Try One Look
posted by ThePants at 7:34 AM on May 21, 2008

I'm an English Grad student, and something I use that you might enjoy would be the McGill University English Dictionary of Rhyme, a free downloadable program that has many benefits you might enjoy.
posted by Fizz at 7:47 AM on May 21, 2008

I agree with londongeezer--I pick the thesaurus suggestion with the sense closest to what I want to convey, and then look that word up. If the suggestions under that second word are going off in the wrong direction, go back to the original word and look up a different synonym.

Also: may I suggest that the word you're looking for in your example (in case you didn't find it yet) might be moot.
posted by lemonade at 8:23 AM on May 21, 2008

Or possibly obsolete. The online Merriam Webster thesaurus gives a large selection of related words--here's extinct, which gives 'obsolete' under related words.
posted by lemonade at 8:37 AM on May 21, 2008

Rhymezone's related meaning search is pretty cool and might make some connections for you.
posted by Wolfdog at 8:42 AM on May 21, 2008

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