“I am bravery. I am courage. I am valor. I am daring. I am holding a thesaurus.” ~ Demetri Martin
THESAURUS by Billy Collins It could be the name of a prehistoric beast that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary, or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book. It means treasury, but it is just a place where words congregate with their relatives, a big park where hundreds of family reunions are always being held, house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs, all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos; hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes, inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph. Here father is next to sire and brother close to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning. And every group has its odd cousin, the one who traveled the farthest to be here: astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool. Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags. I can see my own copy up on a high shelf. I rarely open it, because I know there is no such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous around people who always assemble with their own kind, forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors while others huddle alone in the dark streets. I would rather see words out on their own, away from their families and the warehouse of Roget, wandering the world where they sometimes fall in love with a completely different word. Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever next to each other on the same line inside a poem, a small chapel where weddings like these, between perfect strangers, can take place. ~ from The Art of Drowning (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995)
Friend, pal, chum, cutie pie, darling, dearest, beauty, babe, honey, sweetie, cookie, muffin: yes, I’m talking to YOU! 🙂
Collins is at his playful best in this poem. A charming idea to personify words, thinking of them gathering for family reunions, sharing a picnic basket and running sack races. To me, words have always been alive.
He makes an interesting point about there being “no such thing as a synonym,” and wanting to somehow liberate words, to allow them to wander freely in order to “fall in love with a completely different word,” where they might forever stand “next to each other on the same line inside a poem.” What a lovely, winsome way of describing the art of poetics.
My Roget is “up on a high shelf” along with my Webster’s dictionary, rhyming dictionary, and Flip Dictionary. Haven’t opened any of them in years because now I do all my wordy research online. 🙂
There seems to be a longstanding rivalry between pro-thesaurus and anti-thesaurus writers. Stephen King agrees with Collins:
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. (1986)
Likewise Mark Doty:
If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things. (2011)
Still, poets Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas felt differently. Plath cited her Roget as “a book she would rather live with on a desert isle than a Bible.” Whereas Plath relied more heavily on her thesaurus in her earlier writing, it became a crutch for Thomas in the latter part of his career when alcoholism had a detrimental effect on his work.
I think I fall somewhere in-between when it comes to the thesaurus. It can be a valuable research tool if you’re careful not to misuse it. Yes, it can hamper natural expression, suppressing spontaneity and personal style. And things can get pretty pompous if you use a fancy word for the wrong reasons. But. If you’re an avid word lover and enjoy exploring shades of meaning, connotation, and general semantics, there’s nothing like browsing a good thesaurus to help you find just the right word, or to confirm that the word you already had in mind is indeed “the one.”
From what I understand, compulsive list-maker Peter Mark Roget did not intend for his book to be used as a quick fly-by synonym finder. After all, when his thesaurus was first published in 1852, his entries were not organized alphabetically — but by concept. So if you had an idea, you then searched for the word(s) that best expressed it. His thesaurus was essentially a reverse topical dictionary, a place for writers to dwell in the world of each concept with all its nuances, and to better understand the language representing it.
Like people who read the dictionary for fun, or cookbooks for the backstories, I like reading the thesaurus to mine the richness and beauty of the English language. It’s a great place to discover new words with interesting linguistic relationships, to compare all the possibilities.
I like that thesaurus dwellers congregate by families, because it’s easier to get to know them that way. And I don’t think the words themselves mind hanging out with their relatives, because when they’re right next to each other they’re best able to show off their sometimes very subtle differences and implications, clarifying what they and they alone can do if you decide to choose them.
This makes our job as word matchmakers all the sweeter.
Just for fun, Mr Cornelius and Blue Bear made a word cloud of synonyms for the word “blue.”
How do you feel about using a thesaurus?
The lovely and talented Heidi Mordhorst is hosting the Roundup at My Juicy Little Universe. Scamper over to check out the full menu of poetic goodness being shared around the blogosphere this week. Have a nice weekend!
*Copyright © 2021 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.