Solecizing Roget

MadLibsI’ve already confessed my love of Roget’s Thesaurus, so I am not simply going to pile on with the current wave of complaints about its popularity among students. This popularity, dubbed Rogeting by the British lecturer Chris Sadler, is apparently a side effect of rampant plagiarism and professors’ efforts to curb it by means of software like Turnitin.

The idea is simple, and familiar to me from the research essays we were assigned to write long ago, in seventh grade, on topics like “China” or “World War I.” My personal favorite was a three-pager I was assigned on the topic of Islam. Naturally, I consulted the Encyclopedia Britannica, where I found the equivalent of 30 pages’ worth on one of the world’s great religions. My task, as I saw it, was to reduce this material to as few pages as possible, substituting words like spread for extended in noting how the faith went from Spain to India. I may have used the thesaurus to help me find substitute words; in fact, it may have been the lure of the original Roget’s, with its tantalizing categories of words, synonyms leading to antonyms and thence to related groupings, that left me slaving away, in the wee hours, on what turned out to be a monstrous 12 pages of paraphrased and condensed information.

The crowning touch of the assignment, of course, was to be its decorative cover, and being graphically challenged and short of sleep, I knew of nothing to do about this problem other than break into loud sobs. My mother heard these, came downstairs to the kitchen where I was working, and for the only time in my school career, offered to do the deed for me. Next day I handed in my report with a cover featuring a cleverly executed dusky-skinned fellow in a turban, sitting in lotus position and smoking a hookah. ISLAM was above his head. Down the left side of the cover ran the words Allah Allah Allah, and down the right ran Flaming Sword of the Desert. No one even called me in for questioning.

No such luck now. What’s more worrisome, it seems students don’t have a problem substituting a word they don’t know, or seeking substitutions for words they don’t know, or simply substituting randomly, like Mad Libs set loose on the essay assignments. I’m not sure I believe that anyone actually wrote sinister buttocks for left behind. But I can easily imagine a student’s wanting to alter the phrase misusing Roget, looking up misuse, finding solecism, and transforming it into a gerund without stopping to wonder if there exists a verb, much less what solecism actually means. I can imagine the phrase Jung was betrothed in a brawl with Freud as an attempt not to be caught plagiarizing the sentence Jung was engaged in a dispute with Freud. Oh, please. Renounce. Give up. Vacate. Resign. Cut it out.

Rebecca Schuman at Slate takes this further. We professors, she points out, have been encouraging students to use high-falutin words and not to repeat words within a sentence or paragraph. So we have only ourselves to blame when characters acquire sympathy or instigate our critique, or when an excerpt delineates character interaction. I’m not sure she’s put her finger on it. It seems to me that the stiff diction we decry in student papers, when it doesn’t emerge simply from anxious parroting of trite academic verbiage, comes not from overuse of the thesaurus but from insufficient use. That is, especially as online versions render the thesaurus in dictionary form, we find students seeking simply to replace one word with another as if a “better” word will solve a problem they’re having with expressing themselves clearly.

But one of the joys of the traditional thesaurus is the way it moves from one part of speech to another, from one concept to the next, so that as your eye travels down the page, you find yourself reimagining, not just the word, but the whole sentence, even the whole idea. Maybe you’ve described the sky as indigo already, for instance, so you’re looking for a different shade of blue. Cobalt? Azure? Mazarine, whatever the hell that means, and maybe the teacher won’t know either? But if you move from color to the things that make color, maybe you’d do better to say the sky has been inked. Yes! Or maybe it’s not the color of the sky exactly, but the deepening shadows, and now you’ve moved from specific colors to plays of light and words like penumbral. But to get there, you can’t just drop in on the thesaurus. You have to use it with care, with enthusiasm. With—should I use a less sentimental synonym?—love.

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