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The Thesaurus Is Good, Valuable, Commendable, Superb, Actually

15 April 2019

From The Outline:

As reference books go, the thesaurus, these days, is one step up in respectability from the rhyming dictionary. To use one is to betray something embarrassing about yourself. To be accused of using one is to be accused both of pretentiousness and of using words whose meaning you don’t really know. (For instance: I originally wrote “accused of malapropism” in that previous sentence, but then checked the dictionary and discovered this refers to mistakes based on sound.) One goes to the thesaurus to find, as they say, a “ten-dollar word.”

Perhaps the best example of this sort of condemnation comes from Simon Winchester, the author of a book about the Oxford English Dictionary, who once wrote in The Atlantic that Roget’s Thesaurus “should be roundly condemned as a crucial part of the engine work that has transported us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity” and concludes that it provides “quick and easy solutions for the making of the middlebrow, the mindless, and the mundane.” Or, by way of a more recent (and certainly more mild) example, from The Morning News’s “Tournament of Books”: “Milkman seems to be overly occupied with its own style, its difference, and its reliance on a thesaurus…to notice that the poetry to justify that stylistic occupation is simply absent.”

. . . .

As originally conceived, Roget’s Thesaurus was a slightly different sort of book than the kind of online thesaurus one might consult today. It was instead a fairly rigorous if idiosyncratic taxonomy of language. And it was not a book of synonyms, such books already existed. Synonyms, in terms of words that can be completely substituted for each other, are fairly rare. “Inferiority,” “minority,” and “subordinacy” might all be related words, but they carry slightly different meanings. “Sunset,” “dusk,” and “twilight” all encompass roughly the same time of day, but each has a different tone. So Roget called his book a “thesaurus,” or treasury. He was showcasing and organizing language, not simply providing lists of matching words.

. . . .

In Winchester’s article, he notes that one student changed “his earthly fingers” into “his chthonic digits,” which I’d agree is pretty dreadful. But that error is easily corrected, and that student presumably gained the word “chthonic,” which if nothing else is a fun word to know. Just look at it there, announcing itself with an improbable collection of consonants. And if a thesaurus can be a trap for the unwary, who don’t realize the next step after browsing a collection of words is to go look those words up in a dictionary, this, again, seems like a problem with a one-time solution.

But the alternate problem is that people are too afraid to test new words — even words that are correct, but obscure — because they are afraid of seeming foolish and they either stay within the bounds of a safe vocabulary or (if they are a certain business-managerial type) cope by inventing hideous new words. Fear of the thesaurus has unleashed horrors a Chthonic god could only dream of, like synergy and incentivize.

This seems to me to be a worse problem, not only because people do learn by making mistakes, but because the sphere of “correct,” accessible English will only get smaller and smaller.

. . . .

The decline of the thesaurus is similar to the kind of loss that you experience when you visit a digital resource rather than the library. Browsing the stacks, you are struck with the multitude of books within a particular category. You go looking for one thing and come out with the book you didn’t know you were looking for. Much like a thesaurus, somebody often has to teach you how to use the classification system in the library for you to get the most out of browsing there. But what you get out of browsing really is something qualitatively different than you get from searching a library catalog.

Link to the rest at The Outline

Writing Advice, Writing Tools

14 Comments to “The Thesaurus Is Good, Valuable, Commendable, Superb, Actually”

  1. “But the alternate problem is that people are too afraid to test new words …”

    And most readers don’t want to have to go look up words to understand what they’re reading – never mind that tearing them out of the story you were trying to tell.

  2. As reference books go, the thesaurus, these days, is one step up in respectability from the rhyming dictionary. To use one is to betray something embarrassing about yourself.

    Wait, what? Oh, where are is the OP meeting the people who say these things? They are just not my kind, dear.

    The thesaurus is great when you’re trying to find exactly the right word, and the one that comes immediately to mind is only the almost-right word. I like the dictionaries that list the closest synonyms to the almost-right word and explain the nuances … but sometimes you just have to whip out the thesaurus. Roget’s International Thesaurus, Fourth Edition, was my favorite swag from a writing competition. But then, I used to read the dictionary, too. I guess I’m weird.

    A thesaurus is also great when you want to use a less froufrou word choice, but you only know the froufrou version. I’ve run into people who don’t recognize the word “vinedresser.” What else do you call vinedressers? Oh, I could call them vineyard workers. Or wine growers. Okay, cool.

    I loved that scene in “Spin City,” where the mayor’s press secretary kept overusing the word optimistic, and tried coining “hope-timistic” as an alternative. The staff gave him a thesaurus, and it was off to the races for the poor, vocabulary-challenged man.

    In Winchester’s article, he notes that one student changed “his earthly fingers” into “his chthonic digits,”

    Yes, that’s an odd word in the OP’s context. I usually see “chthonic” in relation to deities or spirits. It would never occur to me to use that word in relation to body parts. That’s why it helps to use the thesaurus in tandem with a good, lexiconic dictionary, so you can know when a word’s usage would ring false, and when it’s spot’s on.

    Thesauri are bad now? Whoever wrote the OP is hanging out with a bad crowd. She (or he) must find a better class of friends 🙂

    • Yeah, my memory sucks. I love my thesaurus. Sometimes there *is* a word that’s just right, and I know it, and the thesaurus helps me remember it.

    • I believe that “bad crowd” includes at least one popular writer who offers a number of writing classes.

      I’m with you and Lynn. I often want to use a word that I can’t remember. The OP says words have different tones. I think of them as having different flavors because I taste them on my tongue. I can remember the vanilla one, but what I want is butter pecan. The thesaurus helps me find the right flavor.

  3. I disagree with that article. I’m a writer. I love Roget’s. I use it. And it makes my writing richer. The trick is, as in everything else: you must use it ‘in moderation.’ Think before you change your first-choice word to something else.

  4. In agreement with people above who use thesauruses. I often think of articles that decry their use as written from a place of ‘exemplary brain privilege’. These are people with perfect recall, or something, who never have that ‘I know the word, it’s on the tip of my tongue’ moments.

    I have these moments constantly; I’ve learned a lot more vocabulary than I remember. Looking things up helps me recall those ‘oh, yes, that one!’ words that have fallen out of my head because half of my time is spent communicating with tweens who talk in memespeak.

    As for people not liking unfamiliar words in their books… I don’t know who those people are, because my readers consistently report one of their favorite parts of reading my work is running into new or unfamiliar words. (Some of them make a game out of it: ‘time until new word’ or ‘new word count’, which they share with others and do high-fives over.) With e-readers particularly, which will define anything for you if you touch it, I don’t see any reason not to whip out the right word in the right situation, even if you’re not sure people will know it.

    But that’s me. I like words. Even old and obscure ones. 🙂

    • I adore the dictionary feature of e-Readers. I would like to upgrade the dictionary in my Kindle, though …

      I don’t play the same games as your readers — I didn’t know this was a thing! But you did introduce me to the word “coolth,” which gave me an “ah-ha!” moment. If there’s a warmth, surely there must be a coolth, no? I never thought about that before I saw the word in one of your books.

      I once assumed there must be a “ruthful” to go with “ruthless.” Or even just plain “ruth.” I turned out to be right, but I haven’t seen anyone use it yet. Words are fun 🙂

  5. Right. The only time I get annoyed with a word whose meaning isn’t clear to me is when I’m reading a print book and have to get up and get a dictionary. Ebooks are no problem.

  6. Agreed on the OP.

    There was a sense that the author believed one should already know all the words one plans to use. Just expressing that thought demonstrates its fallacy.

    Whereas, Wherefore, In Witness Whereof and For Good and Valuable Consideration Receipt of Which is Hereby Acknowledged are all lovely words/phrases, but even my lawyer brain appreciates new expressions wherever I might find them.

  7. The OP is total cow manure. It reeks of snootyism and condescension.

    (BTW, I’ve never seen a thesaurus sw app that is in any way as good and as comprehensive as a dead tree thesaurus.)

  8. As reference books go, the thesaurus, these days, is one step up in respectability from the rhyming dictionary.

    Others have spoken in defense of the thesaurus, but I feel the need to say a few words for the rhyming dictionary here. I’ve spoken to several songwriters who find it invaluable to have a quick reference to all of the words that rhyme with the one they’re using, rather than trying to wrack their brains, running through the alphabet. It also lets them find the “best” rhyme rather than just giving up and taking one good enough.

    All in all, I think I would avoid dismissing any tool as useless or disreputable.

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