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Introduction Houghton Mifflin

Roget's II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition, is a book devoted entirely to meaning. In contrast to the old-fashioned thesaurus, which groups undifferentiated words together with an entry word with no definition, this book provides an analysis—a definition—of the meaning or meanings of each entry word in the book. Synonyms are grouped according to meaning. What, then, is meaning?

Meaning
The meaning of even a single word is rather more complex than one might imagine. The most obvious aspect of meaning is denotation, that is, the thing meant, the concept or object referred to. The denotation of the word chair, for example, is that it is a piece of furniture, that it has a seat, legs, a back, and often arms, and that one person can sit on it. So long as it has these features, a chair can be identified as a chair irrespective of the fact that it may be big or small, made of chrome or wood, upholstered or caned—in short, no matter what other features it may have. Furthermore, a chair is distinct from all other pieces of furniture upon which one can sit. It is different from a stool because a stool is backless and armless. It is different from a couch, on which one or more may recline, and different from a chaise longue, which has a seat long enough to support the outstretched legs of the sitter. Thus the denotation of a word includes those features that are criterial and so serve to define and distinguish.
  In addition to its denotation, a word may have a connotation, that is, the suggestive or associative implications of an expression beyond its literal sense. Differences, as of style or expressiveness, that cause a given term to convey a denotation more—or less—formally, colorfully, humorously, or the like, constitute the connotations of the word. For example, both mouth and trap denote the opening in the body through which food is ingested. Mouth, however, is what might be called a neutral term; in conveys information but has no connotations. Trap, on the other hand, is a slang word and is often considered to be somewhat vulgar.
  Words expressive of emotion frequently have connotations, but many words that are not emotive also have them. Many sets of words of identical denotation can be arranged in a spectrum of greater to lesser formality. For example, of the synonym group transpire, happen, occur, befall, betide, and hap, all meaning “to take place, come to pass,” transpire is the most formal; happen and occur are neutral—nonconnotative; and befall, betide, and hap have a somewhat archaic flavor. All of these facts beyond the bare denotation of the terms constitute the connotations of these words. In Roget's II labels such as Informal, Regional, and Slang identify restrictions with respect to level or style of usage.
  Two or more words may have the same denotation and connotation and yet differ in their range of applicability; that is, they cannot be used interchangeably in the same context. Cancel and vacate, both having the same denotation (“to annul or invalidate”) and both being nonconnotative, can nevertheless not be used interchangeably, because vacate is a legal term. One might cancel a magazine subscription, but one would hardly vacate it. Slowly and adagio have the same denotation, but adagio is a technical term in music. Terms of restricted range of applicability are identified in Roget's II by such labels as Architecture, Music, and Psychiatry.

Synonymy and Synonyms
Given the complexity of meaning, a person searching for an alternative word must be sure that the synonym chosen is accurate and precise. Because of its emphasis on the meaning or meanings of a word Roget's II is specifically designed to offer the user a choice of synonyms that lie within the denotative range of the word or sense of the word with which they correspond.
  In its strict sense synonym is a word with a meaning identical or very similar to that of another word. It is often said that in fact there is no such thing as an absolute synonym for any word, that is, a form that is identical in every aspect of meaning so that the two can be applied interchangeably. According to this extreme view the only true synonyms are terms having precisely the same denotation, connotation, and range of applicability. As it turns out, these so-called true synonyms are frequently technical terms and almost always concrete words coming from linguistically disparate sources. Good examples of such pairs are celiac (from Greek) and abdominal (from Latin); and car (from Latin) and automobile (from French). These meet the criteria for true synonymy: they have precisely the same denotations, connotations, and range of applicability, and they are used in identical contexts.
  This view of synonymy is far too restrictive, however. In Roget's II synonymous terms are those having nearly identical denotations. English is rich in such words. Speakers very often have a choice from among a set of words of differing origin but the same denotation. A man may be bearded (from Old English), barbate (from Latin), bewhiskered (from Scandinavian), or whiskered (from Scandinavian). One may go to the shore (from Old English), the coast (from Latin), or the littoral (from Latin). One can refer to the sense of hearing (from Old English) or to the acoustic (from Greek), auditory (from Latin), aural (from Latin), or auricular (from Latin) sense. One can make clothing from cloth (from Old English), fabric (from Latin), material (from Latin), or textiles (from Latin). The reason for choosing one of these words over another is frequently stylistic: one may prefer a simpler or a more complex word; one may prefer a more formal or a less formal term. But the fact that these words share a denotation makes them synonymous and available as substitutes for words one has in mind so that one can be more precise, express oneself more colorfully, or avoid repetition. All of the terms included in the synonymies in Roget's II share the same denotation.