Word for word

Lapham's Quarterly

It has become something of a literary cliché to bash the thesaurus, or at the very least, to warn fellow writers that it is a book best left alone. Some admonitions might be blunt, others wistful, as with Billy Collins musing on his rarely opened thesaurus. But beyond the romantic anthropomorphizing of words needing to break free from “the warehouse of Roget,” what of Collins’ more pointed criticism, that “there is no/such thing as a synonym”? That would suggest that the whole enterprise of constructing a thesaurus is predicated on a fiction.

It is only a fiction if one holds fast to the notion that synonyms must be exactly equivalent in their meaning, usage, and connotation. Of course, under this strict view, there will never be any “perfect” synonyms. No word does exactly the job of another. In the words of the linguist Roy Harris, “If we believe there are instances where two expressions cannot be differentiated in respect of meaning, we must be deceiving ourselves.”

No matter how tempting the metaphor, though, words are not people. We cannot run genetic tests on them to determine their degrees of kinship, and a thesaurus is not a pedigree chart. We can, nonetheless, look to it as a guidebook to help us travel around the semantic space of our shared lexicon, grasping both the similarities that bond words together and the nuances that differentiate them.

This was, in fact, more or less the mission of Peter Mark Roget when he published the first edition of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in the spring of 1852.

Canadian author Margaret Atwood treasures hers, as did Sylvia Plath and Dylan Thomas. Opponents abound though. Stephen King: “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.” And Roddy Doyle: “Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.”

Read the full 21st century appraisal of Roget’s place in the modern world at Lapham’s Quarterly …