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Erin McKean on the American Writer’s Thesaurus

William Safire calls The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus his “favorite new word-finder” and lists it as one of his “books on language” gift books for 2005. He goes on to say it is “chockablock with useful advice: “Novel manages to pack into five positive letters that ‘unusual,’ ‘unfamiliar,’ ‘unconventional,’ ‘untested,’ ‘untried,’ ‘unknown’ and ‘unorthodox’ have to signal with unwieldy and negative un- prefixes.””

The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, in addition to more than 300,000 synonyms and 10,000 antonyms, also includes word notes from celebrated writers — David Auburn, Michael Dirda, David Lehman, Stephin Merritt, Francine Prose, Zadie Smith, Jean Strouse, David Foster Wallace, and Simon Winchester. Each has contributed frank, funny, thoughtful, and, most of all, word-wise mini-essays on words that they particularly love, hate, admire, or are just plain puzzled by.

Here are three of my favorites:

from David Auburn:

Traipse: No other synonym for walk conveys a value judgment. Amble, stroll, saunter, mosey all refer, more or less neutrally, to velocity (or, in a stretch, rhythm). Only traipse is morally loaded: it hints at disapproval, even contempt for the ambler’s lazy, aimless ways. Superficially innocent words that let you get in a dig below the radar should be treasured.

from Michael Dirda:

Limn: This is the phoniest word in the critic’s vocabulary, aside from luminous to describe a writer’s prose (and usually rather gushy prose at that). People are unsure of limn’s pronunciation, uncertain of its actual meaning, and generally pretentious when they use it. Most of the time journalists resort to limn because they want something fancier than describe. Yet while describe slips smoothly by without calling much attention to itself, limn jumps off the page to strut about and show off. It’s one of those words that want to be urbane and debonair, but are somehow really ugly, pushy, nouveau riche. But maybe I’m going out on a limb by saying that. So let’s just call limn fundamentally, almost viscerally rebarbative.

from David Foster Wallace

Impossibly: This is one of those adverbs that’s formed from an adjective and can modify only modifiers, never verbs. Using these sorts of adverbs-impossibly fast, extraordinarily yummy, irreducibly complex-is an upscale educated speech tic that translates well to writing. Not only can the adverbs be as colorful/funny/snarky as you like, but the device is a neat way to up the formality of your prose without sacrificing personality; it makes the writer sound like an actual person, albeit a classy one. The big caveat is that you can’t use these special-adverb-plus-adjective constructions more than once every few sentences or your prose starts to look like it’s trying too hard.

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