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Beware the thesaurus

Someone recently asked me if I knew another word for entertaining.

“What’s the context?” I replied, wondering if the writer was looking for an adjective like enjoyable or interesting or a gerund like wining and dining or possibly even a verb like pondering. “Use it in a sentence.”

“Never mind,” she said, “I’ll just use the thesaurus button.”

The what?

I was familiar with a lot of word processing features—the phonetic symbols, page breaks, strikethroughs, track changes and comment balloons, but the presence of a thesaurus had slipped by me. I was aghast.

I’m not a fan of using thesauri when writing (though I rather like the word, especially in its Latin plural). The word itself seems to have been a Latin borrowing of a Greek term for treasury and was used originally to refer to all sorts of books of knowledge. That was before Peter Mark Roget published his 1852 Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas, which we know today as Roget’s Thesaurus. Dr. Roget, an English physician, had intended the work to be a classification of knowledge along the lines of Carl Linnaeus’s zoological taxonomy. He offered 1,000 concepts divided into a six super categories: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, Affections. Roget’s work was an instant success and evolved over the years into its present incarnation as a dictionary of synonyms.

That’s where I have a problem. I’ve got nothing against taxonomies of concepts, and works like the Oxford English Dictionary’s Historical Thesaurus, for example, are terrific research tools. They let scholars and students and writers research the words used for concepts at different times in order to trace the evolution of vocabulary or just find the right period term.

My frustration with thesauri is when they are used as shortcuts for thinking about words. When that happens, writers can trip themselves up with not-quite synonyms. Consider the word incarnation that I used earlier to refer to the “present incarnation” of Roget’s work. A thesaurus will suggest materialization, manifestation, avatar, or embodiment, none of which quite work. I once made this mistake as a student, writing about “another avatar” of a particular theory. Oops.

Another problem with thesauri is that writers sometimes use them not just to vary their vocabularies but to dress them up too much. Imagine the writer who takes a simple sentence like “The word itself seems to have been a Latin borrowing of a Greek term for treasury and was used originally to refer to all sorts of books of knowledge” and renders it as “The aforementioned expression appears to have existed as a Latin appropriation of Greek nomenclature for cache of riches and was employed formerly to denote any of a multitude of tomes of erudition.” Such a clunky rewording clogs the readers’ brain and makes the writer seem to be trying much too hard to impress with diction rather than ideas.

And perhaps writers should be asking whether repetition of words is always something to be avoided. Controlled repetition can actually be a way to keep the reader’s eye on the conceptual ball, as in this paragraph, from Joseph Williams and Rosemary Hake’s classic article “Style and Its Consequences”:

This is not the place, of course, to speculate in detail about the local and immediate causes of our every stylistic infelicity, much less suggest ways to correct them. But in whatever personal motives they immediately originate—insecurity, an ignorance of how to write any better, or a misguided belief that this heavily nominal style is the only style appropriate to significant subjects…

If we replace the second and third occurrences of style with other words, we run the risk of confusing the reader:

This is not the place, of course, to speculate in detail about the local and immediate causes of our every stylistic infelicity, much less suggest ways to correct them. But in whatever personal motives they immediately originate—insecurity, an ignorance of how to write any better, or a misguided belief that this heavily nominal patterning is the only design appropriate to significant subjects…

Are we talking about one thing (style) or several (style, design, and patterning)?

As writers, we need to worry about words. But we should put our worries about repetition in the context of the rhetorical purpose of exposition. Controlled, intentional repetition can make a topic pop out and stick with the reader. Worrying too much about varying our words can make us appear pretentious (or showy, ostentatious, affected, exaggerated or highfalutin).

Featured image: “Dictionary” by greeblie. CC by 2.0 via Flickr

Recent Comments

  1. Gio Wiederhold

    I do find thesaurus entries quite useful at times. Maybe because I am older? I recall there is a better word for some concept, but it just doesn’t come to the fore. Maybe next morning, after a night’s cogitation? But the thesauri, sometimes tracing through multiple entries may just show the word I was looking for, and will allow me to proceed ..

  2. Scar

    The other day I read a book which I’m fairly sure was written with the aid of a thesaurus button. It was barely readable. I’m all for flowery language where it’s warranted, but not for the sake of trying to sound clever. Usually (and in the case of this book) it has the opposite effect.

  3. Lois Rem

    I expect the thesaurus was born in the day when its compiler could reasonably expect that its users would be familiar with the definitions and shades of meaning of the offered words. Unfortunately, this is no longer the case!

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