The Dinosaur in the Room

Any writer is intimately familiar with that tip-of-the-tongue, what-is-that-word feeling, and so many writers have turned to available outlets to remember that elusive synonym, be that outlet a friend, the recesses of their mind, or a thesaurus. Remarkably, the usage of a thesaurus is quite controversial in the writing community. Writers of all sorts debate the effectiveness and necessity of the thesaurus constantly. The argument volleys between constant utilization, and avoidance at all costs. Of course, there is a level of nuance to these arguments, as a thesaurus is simply a tool that, like all tools, has a prescribed usage that can easily be mishandled, and is definitely not an end-all, be-all resource.

First, maybe to understand some of the controversies, we can look to the history of thesauri and synonym dictionaries. Historically, the first known iteration of a thesaurus, called On Synonyms, was attributed to Philo of Byblos, a Greek grammarian, and philosopher in the 1st or 2nd century AD. However, the first actual recording of the usage of the word “thesaurus” used as an anthology of synonymous words, is accredited to Peter Mark Roget, the author of Roget’s Thesaurus that is still in print today! Roget started his manuscript in 1805, and finally published it in 1852, with over 15,000 entries organized in several different categories. This brought a wonderfully important tool to writers and word lovers, and everyone in between (Beabout). This new collection was created mainly as a compendium to help people “avoid repetition of words, leading to ‘elegant variation’” (Battistella). In other words, this new book allowed for people not to overuse certain words when writing, and offered more accessibility of vocabulary choice to so many people. This eventually led to hot debates surrounding the importance of a thesaurus.

Many writers and academics, such as, famously, Stephen King, deny that the usage of a thesaurus is effective, saying “any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.” And yet many others think that when used in a conscientious way, a thesaurus can elevate a work, as long as they are used to “vary vocabularies, and not dress them up too much” (Battistella). It is likely that so many people find the thesaurus to be overused and irritating because of overinflated and unreachable writing that could have been much more approachable should it have been written with more commonly understood vocabulary. So many critics cite the flamboyant writing of those writers newer to academia, or authors writing to “sound smart” in their arguments against thesauri. Largely, usage manuals, readers, and other writers who suffer more often these particular mistakes and the relatively common misuse of thesauri are the ones criticizing their effectiveness. While that absolutely is a valid examination of a very specific phenomenon, an interesting thing happens when people are able to use and misuse these resources: those writers do have a great opportunity to learn more about vocabulary, audience, connotation, and other valuable writing skills because they made these mistakes. Though sometimes embarrassing to look back on, or difficult to slog through, these flubs and missteps can be very informative, and generally part of the process in becoming a better and more thoughtful writer (McNulty). Many advice writers offer bits of guidance in how to approach writing using a thesaurus, and gently ask: “Does the word need to change right now? What is the motivation to change this word? Is this understandable to my audience? Is this word used in everyday speech or writing?” (McNulty)

Those last two questions lead directly into some of the other arguments against the thesaurus. Those annoyed with inexperienced or overly verbose writers usually have those frustrations stem from the fact that in traditional publications, like Roget’s, there are no definitions, context, nor associated connotations with any of the synonyms that allow for those writers to pick appropriately substitution words. This can easily lead to a different tone than expected, and slightly off meanings that the writer may have not accounted for, or wished to convey (McNulty). Also, of course, is the danger of an author not actually knowing the meaning of the vocabulary at all, instead just plugging in synonyms like a formula with little understanding to what they are writing, nor the audience for which they are writing. On the flip side, once again, is that thesauri and other such resources, such as websites that help with those tip-of-the-tongue moments and those that help describe a word that someone already knows, are integral in learning new vocabulary, and making important connections with one’s own writing. Wielded in the modern writer’s arsenal, a modern thesaurus can be indispensable, especially because some of the pitfalls of historical resources are changing in this Information Age. In that thesaurus websites often are published in conjunction with dictionaries, and offer an exceedingly large range of suitable synonyms with easily looked up connotations, writers are surrounded by more resources than ever, and may be able to avoid some of the more egregious vocabulary conundrums.

The main purpose of a resource like a thesaurus has always been to help people create dimension and variation in writing, but because of the nature of writers, and people in general, is that sometimes we just don’t understand how to use a tool effectively, or wish to sound smarter than we really are. Of course, this can lead easily to irritation for audiences, and silly moments with writers not quite understanding what they wrote. The biggest way a writer can get better is to take those flubs and mistakes and continue to use those thesauri (with additional resources such as a dictionary) to get more comfortable with vocabulary both over-the-top and mundane.

Works Cited:

Beabout, Leandra. “This Is How the First Thesaurus Got Started.” Reader's Digest, Reader's Digest, 8 Jan. 2020. Accessed 7 June 2021.

McNulty, Trenton Joseph. “Thesaurus Abuse: or a Gross Misappropriation of Lexicon.” Writing and Communication Centre, University of Waterloo, 18 Feb. 2019. Accessed 6 June 2021.

Battistella, Edwin L. “Beware the thesaurus.” OUPblog. “Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World.” 11 February 2018. Accessed 3 June 2021.

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