I am looking for a book to make a study of modern synonyms. @WS2 recommended what appears to be a book of exceptional quality, but it has great depth in a few topic areas rather than a breadth of words in general. It is historical and interesting, but doesn't look like a good way to make a "study of synonyms."


I ran into a copy of this book on Google Books years ago while trying to settle a dispute on the meanings of the synonyms "Soft" and "Gentle."

Crabb's English Synonymes

I fell in love with the book and have bought many used copies for myself and friends. It is the only true study of English synonyms that I am aware. The latest edition I can find was published in 1917. It is a wonderful book, and explains the subtle differences between synonyms, truly helping the reader understand which word is appropriate in many different contexts. It contains the basic etymology of each word, an explanation of the general nature that the synonyms share, and an extended explanation of their differences in meaning. It also contains copious examples from "the best authors."

Is there a modern book of similar quality that I might read to further my knowledge of more recent words in the English Language?

I have provided a sample entry as an example of the nature and quality of the book to give you a firm idea of what I am looking for:

To Abash, Confound, Confuse.

Abash is an intensive of abase, signifying to abase thoroughly in spirit.

Confound and Confuse are derived from different parts of the same Latin verb confundo and its participle confusus. Confundo is compounded of con and fundo, to pour together. To confound and confuse then signify properly to melt together or into one mass what ought to be distinct; and figuratively, as it is here taken, to derange the thoughts in such manner as that they seem melted together.

Abash expresses more than confound, and confound more than confuse.

Shame contributes greatly to abashment; what is sudden and unaccountable serves to confound; bashfulness and a variety of emotions give rise to confusion.

The haughty man is abashed when he is humbled in the eyes of others; the wicked man is confounded when his villainy is suddenly detected; a modest person may be confused in the presence of his superiors.

Abash is always taken in a bad sense; neither the scorn of fools, nor the taunts of the oppressor, will abash him who has a conscience void of offence towards God and man. To be confounded is not always the consequence of guilt; superstition and ignorance are liable to be confounded by extraordinary phenomena; and Providence sometimes thinks fit to confound the wisdom of the wisest by signs and wonders, far above the reach of human comprehension. Confusion is at the best an infirmity more or less excusable according to the nature of the case; a steady mind and a clear head are not easily confused, but persons of quick sensibility cannot always preserve a perfect collection of thought in trying situations, and those who have any consciousness of guilt, and are not very hardened, will be soon throw into confusion by close interrogatories.


  • If Peter was so abashed when Christ gave him a look after his demand, if there was so much dread in his looks when he was a prisoner; how much greater will it be when he sits as a judge? - SOUTH
  • Alas! I am afraid they have awaked, and 'tis not done; th' attempt and not the deed confounds us! - SHAKESPEARE
  • The various evils of disease and poverty, pain and sorrow, are frequently derived from others; but shame and confusion are supposed to proceed from ourselves, and to be incurred only by the misconduct which they furnish. - HAWKESWOTH

1 Answer 1


This may well be what you are looking for - Words by David Crystal (2014)

It was first published to great acclaim in 2009, and explores the synonyms of the English language through the historical thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary.

It takes a number of selected topics. The one I am looking at here is the word for a fool. Over 13 pages at roughly 6 words to a page the author examines the words that have meant something like fool from Saxon England to the present day.

Why not take a look at it on-line.

  • That certainly looks like an excellent book, but I'm looking for breadth of content. This book is extremely deep, but only covers 15 concepts: dying, nose, being drunk, a light meal, a privy, a fool, terms of endearment, oaths and exclamations, inns and hotels, prostitutes (why?), money, calm and stormy weather, old people, types of pop music, and spacecraft. I will probably read it for fun at some point, but it doesn't look particularly useful for increasing the accuracy of my general vocabulary. Crabb's purpose was to make a general study of synonyms. I'm looking for something similar. Commented May 12, 2016 at 19:55
  • However, I will try to get my hands on that historical thesaurus. THAT might prove incredibly useful. Commented May 12, 2016 at 19:55
  • @EricBurcham Presumably you are aware of the Historical Thesaurus of English based on words from the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike with the dictionary itself, you appear to be able to get into it free of charge, without any log in required.
    – WS2
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 20:09
  • Thanks! That thesaurus looks very cool on the surface, and it does in fact let you run a search to find all the historically similar words. But the deeper details require payment. Not that a paid service is bad, but I thought I would mention it for others. Searching for "gentle" and then digging into one of the categories brings you to a results page with no information other than a list of words and links to the (paid) OED entries for those words. Here is that deeper result: historicalthesaurus.arts.gla.ac.uk/category/… Commented May 12, 2016 at 21:19
  • @EricBurcham We tend to be spoiled in the UK, because many of our municipal libraries maintain subscriptions to both the OED and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (over 50,000 life stories written by historians). With a library membership we get a log-in identity. Can you not persuade your library to take out a subscription? The ODNB includes biographies of people all around the world who had close connections with Britain, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
    – WS2
    Commented May 12, 2016 at 21:51

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