A confession: I love Roget’s Thesaurus. Mine is not a popular position to avow. Most writers I know, asked if they use a thesaurus to discover more interesting vocabulary for their essays or stories, bristle with resistance. Haven’t those who look up “say” in the Thesaurus and consequently force characters to “utter,” “breathe,” “pour forth,” “state,” “declare,” “assert,” “aver,” “relate” “murmur,” “mutter,” or “gasp” ruined countless reading experiences? Haven’t students who looked up “refute” and found “confute” next on the list composed arguments that got off on the wrong track, only to be further derailed when they decided that “apodixis” suited them better than “proof”? Whatever folks think of Stephen King, most would agree with his advice, in On Writing:
One of the really bad things you can do to your writing is to dress up the vocabulary, looking for long words because you’re maybe a little bit ashamed of your short ones. This is like dressing up a household pet in evening clothes . … Make yourself a solemn promise right now that you’ll never use “emolument” when you mean “tip.”
That not only students but also experienced writers resort to such vocab-pumping suggests that Mr. Roget’s opus is strong stuff, to be handled with care.
In my case, I have taken a somewhat different approach only because my mother made a mistake. In seventh grade, my teacher instructed us to procure a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus in dictionary form. My mom picked up the book, in hardcover, but it was the classic Third Edition of Roget. Embarrassed, I lugged this tome to class and went through what felt like the ridiculous process of finding the word for which I wanted a synonym in the index, only to back up to, say, 541.2 or 783.14. I grew curious about these funny numbers. Eventually I made my way back to the Synopsis of Categories that serves as the book’s Table of Contents. And there, what a lovely map of the mind! I found, for instance, under Class Two (Space) and Category II (Dimensions), Section B, Linear Dimension, which meandered from “Length” through “Horizontalness” and “Pendency” until it arrived, quite logically, at “Sewing.” Reading through Roget—which synonym-seekers rarely do, especially now that the thesaurus is available as hypertext links on the Internet—we are reminded how close, for instance, modesty is to vanity. Searching rather idly one day to characterize a fictional character whom I could see, even smell, in my mind’s eye and nose, I worked through most of Roget’s early 900 sections to realize that what I might have construed as some sort of mannerism was really more like bluster, which lay closer to the notion of reputation than it did to that of affectation.
Roget himself wasn’t thinking much about synonyms when he compiled his eponymous work. He seems to have suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder, which he kept in check, according to his biographer Joshua Kendall, by making lists, classifying that which he could not control—and language, of course, is a beast none of us can tame. The index—which led to the dictionary form of the thesaurus and thence to the search engine that drives thesaurus.com—was an afterthought.
The other consequence, besides synonym-hunting, of which Roget might not have thought was the thesaurus’s effect on class-based authority in language. In J.M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan, two of my favorite albeit obscure references are in the descriptions of the Darling house and of Captain Hook’s cabin. Of the house, Barrie writes, “We have a right to place it where we will, and the reason Bloomsbury is chosen is that Mr. Roget once lived there.” And in the cabin is found the Thesaurus itself, which makes Hook “not wholly evil.” While Barrie’s play does its share of hifalutin verbal parody (Hook: “Split my infinitives, but ’tis my hour of triumph!”), his references to Roget make it clear that, in the divide between those Brits who wanted to maintain one language for Etonians and another for the masses, he stood firmly on the side of thesaurus-lovers, happy to see (in Section 447.11) “hearken” in the same list with “cock the ears.”
And so, thesaurus junkie that I am, stand I.Return to Top