IMG_1708Be not afraid. I’m not about to bring in a Tyrannosaurus rex, a Brachiosaurus, or even a Brontësaurus, but a book of words. Not necessarily harmless – words can savage – but perfectly safe and rewarding for a writer to approach.

So why did fear of the Thesaurus rise like noxious vapour from comments on a blog I read recently? The main objections were these:

1. Thesaurus contains long and obscure words that nobody understands.

2. The words are often archaic or simply old fashioned.

3. There is no such thing as a synonym: each word has its own meaning.

Undeniably there is some truth in each of these comments but a very partial truth: the problem is with the user, not with the tool.

As with a dictionary, long words are listed in Thesaurus but just as often a shorter word is suggested: in my Collins edition, under ‘conflict’ is ‘strife’, or ‘clash’. More formally, ‘contention’ or ‘dissension’; more violently, ‘battle’ or ‘combat’, and what is obscure about ‘antagonism’?

Certainly my big, battered International Roget’s Thesaurus dates from 1945, but for ‘rejoicing’ it offers ‘giggle’, ‘chuckle’, ‘snigger’ and ‘grin’. True, you can also find ‘revelry’, ‘merriment’ and ‘gladden’ but these dated words can be useful in portraying characters of a certain age or temperament, or in a story set in an earlier period. They resonate, create verisimilitude, or indeed, ring true.  And what fun the vowel-laden Scrabble player can have with ‘risible’.

The third comment is perhaps the most important. Few words convey exactly the same sense as another or are so similar they can be freely interchanged, and that is where I find the greatest value in Thesaurus. Words have different origins and life stories that create their individual personalities.

For a simple example, the Oxford English Dictionary quotes ‘shut’ and ‘close’ as synonyms. They are the same in that the door is no longer open, but ‘shut’ is from Old English scyttan, becoming in Middle English shutten as in shooting a bolt and has the harsh, abrupt tone of that action. The ancestor of ‘close’ is an Old French word, clore, to close off; the sound is of a longer, more gradual movement. The result is the same, the ‘wood is in the hole’ in either case, but in a story, I would choose one or other according to the mood I want to create, and the rhythm and pace that suits my sentence.

More often, the meaning of ‘synonyms’ is not quite the same. The emphasis is different and one word may fit more comfortably in a particular sentence or context than another. Understanding these nuances avoids repetition while adding precision to an act, idea or description; it can even define character.

Another simple example:  Collins lists twenty-nine synonyms for ‘annoy’. Of these, ‘ruffle’, ‘tease’ and ‘peeve’ seem fairly mild and do not imply a strong reaction; ‘harry’, ‘harass’ and ‘molest’ are stronger but suggest the victim is relatively powerless; but if you ‘madden’, ‘anger’ and ‘provoke’, expect some potentially violent pay-back. Or, depending on the characters involved and the nature of the tale, you can opt for ‘bug’, ‘irk’ or ‘incommode’ –the latter almost guaranteed to raise a laugh. What wonderful choices.

But when it comes to blogging, if you try to keep Google happy by repeating key terms from your title at least every hundred words so it is picked up more readily by search engines, those words are either not precise in each case, or you are simply repeating yourself. This is why such writing is called ‘content’ (as opposed to a piece, article or feature) because it has the consistency of a can of beans rather than the depth and flavour of a chili con carni.

What do you think – dinosaur or creative device?

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Thesaurus: a species of dinosaur?

13 thoughts on “Thesaurus: a species of dinosaur?

  • September 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    Lovely post, Trish! My ancient Roget’s Thesaurus is so well-thumbed and over-used it is held together with copious yardage of sellotape but still falls to bits fairly regularly. x

  • September 7, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    If a Thesaurus is a dinosaur then I’m from the Dark Ages – my Roger’s is falling apart, the pages brown as old tea, but I can’t imagine writing without it. And the online versions never come up with the right world, while my faithful book finds it eventually – and I have such fun hunting for it!

    • September 7, 2013 at 8:41 pm

      Hi Gaby and Jo, yes, mine is falling apart, too, but it was the best $2 worth I’ve ever found in a car-boot sale. Glad you enjoyed the post and we can all join the chorus of Thesaurus fans.

  • September 10, 2013 at 4:14 am

    I use mine all the time and it would be like losing a good friend if I misplaced it.

    • September 10, 2013 at 10:05 am

      Exactly how I feel, Ian.

  • September 14, 2013 at 6:21 am

    I agree with the other comments made.
    I have a much thumbed Oxford Paperback Dictionary & Thesaurus with ‘Unique one-stop entries’ (1997) which I use constantly. I also have a Collins Easy Learning Dictionary & Thesaurus (2007) which I use less often. I also have at least one other Thesaurus tucked away on a shelf gathering dust.

    • September 14, 2013 at 7:01 am

      You sound well set up. Just thumbing through a thesaurus on those vague days can be inspiring. Thanks for visiting.

  • September 17, 2013 at 4:50 pm

    Objections 1 and 2 can be dismissed immediately. No writer worth their salt would use obscure or archaic words in their writings. They’d just look silly or pretentious – unless of course the writer wanted a word that looked deliberately silly or pretentious.

    It’s true that every word has a particular meaning. My old guru used to say that the only two words in the English language which had the same meaning were “gorse” and “furze”. He had tongue in cheek, but his message was there – look very carefully at the word that you’re going to use and make sure it fits is precisely your intent and meaning.

    The real value of the thesaurus comes to the fore when all you can think of is the word that’s not quite right. You go to the thesaurus and look at the alternatives there. Very often, you find the word that suits your meaning exactly.

    For those who are online, there are several excellent thesauruses, and it’s a simple matter to look up that elusive word the one that is just what you want. That’s very satisfying.

    Alternatively it’s just possible for that overused or abused word which is the only one that comes to mind at the time, that you may find a word that lifts a sentence by its novelty – providing it means exactly what you want.

    Denis Wright

    • September 17, 2013 at 5:03 pm

      Loved your comments, Denis. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Like you, the times I use a thesaurus most (and I prefer print, however tattered) are when a word comes to mind but it’s not exactly what I mean and I can’t think of another. And I’m not sure whether it’s because there is now such a huge volume of written material on the internet, but words and phrases seem to become cliches faster than they used to, and thesaurus is good to find alternatives to those, too. Great to see you – visit any time.

  • September 17, 2013 at 11:55 pm

    You’ve hit the nail perfectly here, Trish. While every word has its own meaning and root, the choice usually depends on the mood, style and context of the text. And yes, I’m a ‘heavy user’ of the Thesaurus so I must class as a dinosaur too. I use the Oxford edition sometimes, but I also use an online version kindly provided by Apple, which I like very much too. It gives the etymology of the words which I find fascinating. I’m not sure I agree there is no place for archaic words as suggested by Denis. If you’re writing a historical novel, they might be needed for convincing period dialogue.

    • September 18, 2013 at 1:39 am

      Hello Val, thank you for reading and commenting. Of coure, I would have guessed you were another wordsmith and Thesaurus user, and yes, etymology is fascinating but I tend to find half an hour of ‘research’ has gone by when I’m supposed to be writing. Incidentally, my old International Thesaurus has five columns of boat/ship related nouns!

  • October 11, 2013 at 9:04 am

    We always had a thersaurus in our home when I was growing up, dad used to make a game of looking up words. Recently I have been using the online ones that are not very good and I’m intending to buy one next time I’m in town. Interesting post Trish.

    • October 11, 2013 at 9:53 am

      Glad you enjoyed it, Anne. Your Dad sounds a far-sighted person to play word games with you. Try second-hand book shops first, you might find a good Roget’s – happy hunting. And no hassle over my book – enjoy it first.

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