The Contemporary Thesaurus of Search Terms and Synonyms: A Guide for Natural Language Computer Searching. 2nd ed.

Alastair G. Smith (Victoria University of Wellington)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 1 August 2000




Smith, A.G. (2000), "The Contemporary Thesaurus of Search Terms and Synonyms: A Guide for Natural Language Computer Searching. 2nd ed.", Online Information Review, Vol. 24 No. 4, pp. 329-344.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

A simple truth that many novice searchers find hard to grasp is that computerised retrieval systems search for words, not concepts. The key to successful searching is mastering the vagaries of language and anticipating the range of terms that authors and indexers may have used to describe the concepts sought. One way of mapping concepts to the terms used to represent them is an information retrieval thesaurus. Normally a thesaurus is designed as a tool for indexers, but Contemporary Thesaurus of Search Terms and Synonyms is designed as a tool for searchers, suggesting alternative terms for searching.

The thesaurus is an update and expansion of Knapp’s 1993 Contemporary Thesaurus of Social Science Terms and Synonyms, including expanded coverage of business and the humanities as well as the original coverage of the social sciences. It is designed as an aid to searching of online databases, CD‐ROMs as well as the Internet.

The wide range of subject coverage includes: social sciences, education, women’s issues, the environment, literature, the arts, medicine, history, linguistics, business and economics. There are 20,000 words (9,000 more than in the previous edition) listed under 8,500 concept headings. The stated aim of the thesaurus is to cover only general aspects of fields with specialised terminology, and it does not include unique terms for which there are no synonyms (for example, “econometrics”). There seem to be few acronyms listed as alternative terms.

Entries are organised by concepts as follows:

Election Law. Election law(s). Choose from: election(s), voting right(s), vote, electoral, ballot(s) with: law(s), constitution(ality), statute(s). Consider also: Elections Act. Voting Rights Act. See also: Ballots; Campaign Finance reform; Elections; Laws; Voting

Each concept entry includes a group of words, including some variant endings, under the common name for a concept. See and See Also directions are used.

There is no overall alphabetic index of words or a hierarchical index. These could be useful adjuncts, but they would obviously increase the bulk of the thesaurus considerably. The lack of the more conventional broader term (BT)/narrower term (NT)/related term (RT) structure might seem a throwback, but is probably appropriate in a tool intended for end users.

As well as the main thesaurus, there are brief sections on computer searching, natural language searching (with useful advice on broadening and narrowing searches), putting searches in context (with hints on defining broad subject areas – a useful technique in the social sciences). Although the computer searching section gives good advice for searching conventional online and CD‐ROM databases that rely on Boolean operators, there are only brief allusions to the techniques required for using the relevancy‐ranked search engines that are commonly found on the Internet. There are sample entries and “how to use” information inside the covers of the volume. The tool is probably best provided as a print volume, to consult at a terminal, but it is interesting to speculate on how it would work in digital form.

Despite the all‐encompassing title, there is no consistent coverage of the pure sciences and technology: although medicine is mentioned in the scope statement, there is no entry covering “CAT scans” or “NMR”, but there is a range of terms for “genetic engineering”. The coverage of business and management is patchy: there are no entries for “business process re‐engineering (BPR)” or “change management”. “Trade marks” are not found with other intellectual property terms under “intangible property”. Naturally it is difficult to keep a tool like this up to date: “Electronic mail” refers to “Junk email” but not to “Spam”.

Although there is a brief appendix on differences between British and US spelling, the terminology is US‐focussed. Alternative spellings (e.g. labor/labour) are not provided in the body of the thesaurus, so US students attempting to find the the “color of the UK Labor Party’s flag” might not be assisted in their quest. There is no mention of “occupational overuse syndrome” (commonly used in Australasia) under “repetitive motion disorders”, and no prompt under “private schools” to consider the UK usage of “public schools”. Terms suggested for roads include “freeways”, but not “motorways”; however, “automobiles” includes “motor cars” and “lorries”. Terms include geographic regions, though again this bears a US perspective; in the South Pacific a searcher for “Cook Islands” would not be directed to “Raratonga”.

However, in any tool like this it is easy to find examples where the coverage could be improved. In meeting its core objectives the thesaurus provides a useful adjunct to searching. In fact the main barrier to compiling a useful set of search terms seems to be distraction of interesting terms that appear on every page: a search for “Charitable trusts” can easily be diverted into exploring the potential of “Chattering classes” or “Cherry picking”!Any reference department or information centre, particularly those dealing with queries in the social sciences, will find The Contemporary Thesaurus of Search Terms and Synonyms a valuable resource and search aid.

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