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Originally posted JULY 4, 2013 on my old language blog.

[I tried to think of a title with some clever play on trigger, but all that came to me was bad puns and worse puns. Dear Reader, please feel free to suggest something in the comments, but it has to be better than the obvious “misfires” and the even-more-obvious but functionally inapposite “goes off half-cocked”.]


I’m a frequent user of Thesaurus.com, and in general I like the site, and its sister site, Dictionary.com, as long as I don’t have to browse them with MS Internet Explorer: without an ad-blocker, the sites assail the user with a barrage of distracting animated advertisements.  (I will say, however, having just checked, that the assault is rather less annoying than it was a couple of years ago.)

At any rate, today I was looking for a good synonym for the noun trigger to use as a colorful metaphor for something that sets off an intense emotional reaction, so I entered “trigger” into the search box on Thesaurus.com.  The results I got call for some attention from the site’s editors (or whoever is responsible for search results there).

Trigger is primarily an agent noun, a modification of tricker, from Dutch trekker = pull (nouni.e., the thing one pulls, as in bell-pull, drawer-pull).  Its verbal sense is clearly secondary, and derivative of the noun. Yet the noun trigger has no main entry on Thesaurus.com.

Out of twenty-seven hits returned, only four are nouns, starting with hit no. 11, knob,  on the second page of results, for which trigger is an extremely obscure and unlikely synonym, at least in American English.

Hit no. 2, appearing immediately after the verb trigger (which one would expect to signify a very close association with the search-term, or, in Internet terms, very high “relevance”), is the completely unrelated (not to mention rare and largely dialectal) adjective, trig, which pulls in three more hits (nos. 25-27), also adjectives, which likewise have nothing to do with trigger (except orthographically, as an unlikely, hypothetical comparative, meaning “more trig”): in, swank, and tony.  (Incidentally, since tony derives from tone, shouldn’t it be spelt toney, to distinguish it from the nickname for Anthony?  Let’s start a petition drive!)

Eventually, Thesaurus.com gets around to the metaphorical sense of triggerviz., spur, catalyst, impetus, etc.; but nowhere among all these hits do we find synonyms for the plain noun trigger in its literal, mechanical, functional sense.

And the thesaurus at Merriam-Webster is even worse:  it doesn’t recognize trigger as a noun at all!

What’s going on here?  I decided to make a blog post.  But I’d need the synonyms that Thesaurus.com had failed to deliver.  A Web search on “trigger synonym” (using Startpage.com, so that my results would be the same as yours, dear Reader, and not modified to reflect my buying or browsing habits, as analysed by Google) offered no more encouragement.  The first two hits were Thesaurus.com and Merriam-Webster.com, which we’ve already dealt with.  Next came Reverso, which cited the “English Collins Dictionary English synonyms & Thesaurus”, and came in about even with Merriam-Webster:  no nouns at all.

Next was Synonyms.net, which appears to be a vampire site, aggregating results from other sites on the web and presenting them with new and different advertisements.  It’s part of something called The STANDS4 Network, a collection of vampire sites—dare we call them para-sites?  No, we don’t.  We are sorry.—that aggregate definitions, reference sites, song lyrics, and other collectible data from the Web, plus a few sites that present starter-collections of various things (e.g., symbols, quotations, phrases) from the public domain, and appeal to users to supplement them:  “Help us build the largest human-edited ______ collection on the web!”  I’m sure they’ll distribute the ad revenue fairly to the people who provide their sites with content.

Whatever may be the merits of other sites on the STANDS4 Network, its offerings on Synonyms.net, at least for trigger, did not inspire confidence. From WordNet on Princeton.edu, Synonyms.net sucks several entries, which, although they do recognize trigger as a noun, don’t offer much in the way of synonyms:

induction, gun trigger, initiation, trigger

In fairness to WordNet, though, I should point out that it is expressly not a thesaurus.  See the (reasonably) interesting explanation, “What is WordNet?” on Princeton’s site.

Next came the following, attributed to Wiktionary—and remember, these are offered up as synonyms on a site devoted to synonyms:

1.  trigger (noun)
to fire a weapon

2.  trigger (noun)
to initiate something

* * *

Synonyms.net notwithstanding, however, the actual thesaurus on Wiktionary,Wikisaurus, has no entry for trigger at all; and if the entries the STANDS4 Network says it sucked from Wiktionary were ever on there, they’re not anymore.

Well, dear Reader, you can run the search yourself, and prolong the merriment indefinitely.  Meanwhile, it’s pretty clear what I’ve done:  I’ve discovered the one English word with no synonyms.  Why else would the Repository of All Knowledge, i.e., the Internet, falter so badly in filling what seems to be such a simple request?  I asked for the impossible.