As a writer, I’m ever searching for the word. You know the one—that perfectly specific verb, that spot-on, lyrical adjective, that evocative noun—that peculiar word (or phrase) that will infuse an entire sentence with magic.
The word is often an elusive creature. Sasquatch-esque. And like the noble sasquatch, it’s out there—waiting. I often come to a point in writing when I know there is a perfect word, if only I can find it.
Which beings me to the point of today’s post: thesauruses (thesauri?). Actually, no. Let’s back up for a moment and talk about dictionaries. A few years back I stumbled upon this blog post: You’re probably using the wrong dictionary. It was a game changer for me. If you haven’t read it before, I highly recommend doing so. But the gist of it is this: modern dictionaries do not hold a candle to this 1913 Webster dictionary. Its definitions often read like poetry, and it uses sample sentences from classic literature. It’s a wonderful resource.
But it got me thinking: is it possible there’s an older thesaurus that is also superior to the modern one that comes standard on my computer? I did some digging, and I found that the 1911 version of Roget’s Thesaurus is free and available online, and—much like the glorious Webster dictionary—it is rife with odd and wonderful words.
A while back, I was working on a short story (Prudentia) about a bureaucrat on a spaceship who works as an art censor, until a collection of poems forces her to reexamine her beliefs. It was a fun project, but it meant I needed to write a few poems—something I hadn’t done since college. I quickly rediscovered how much more sasquatch-esque the right word can be when dealing with verse. The word not only requires the perfect meaning, but also (potentially) the correct number of syllables or a specific ending sound.
I was stumped for a while on the fourth line of the second stanza in this poem:
I should rather bleed
Burn, choke, howl, keen,
For want of you, plead,
Than smile—blithe, serene
I should rather die,
Live, hurt, die anew,
Than have said goodbye,
And, ______, continue
Without you, Love
Oh – Oh my Love,
I wanted a word that meant “willingly” or “gladly,” however it needed to be one syllable (and a one-syllable adverb is a pretty tall order.) Typing willingly into the thesaurus on my mac gave me this:
None of these words work. But I had the sense that the word I needed did exist, that I had read it somewhere before. When I checked on Roget.org (using the text queries feature, which has more results. Just click on the little ABC button at the bottom of the landing page) I got this:
And there she blows! Fain. FAIN! I double checked the meaning in my Webster dictionary:
And, yup. It’s the perfect word. Than have said goodbye / And, fain, continue. BOOSH!
My Thesaurus Journey Continues
I continued to happily use the web version of this thesaurus for quite some time, until one day I was placing an Amazon order and I needed to throw something else into my cart to get free shipping (Oh, Zon, you clever rogue, you), so I decided to get myself a physical copy (this one). I wanted something I could leaf through, so I might browse for words that strike my fancy without having to enter a search term.
When it arrived, with its fragile binding and yellowing pages, my first thought was that it really put the used in “used – very good condition.” But then I opened it, and found this:
I was expecting to think to myself: “this is a very good thesaurus,” or possibly “this is useless, but at least I got free shipping.” Instead, I found myself realizing something fairly embarrassing: I’d forgotten what a thesaurus is. Because I have long thought of a thesaurus as a dictionary, but with synonyms rather than definitions. However, the way this book is organized completely contradicts that notion. As you can see in the above picture, that page is not laid out alphabetically. It is designed like this: Communication of Ideas > Nature of Ideas Communicated > Meaning / Unmeaningness (Yes, let’s take a moment to savor the word unmeaningness.)
The introduction explains it perfectly:
The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.
Perhaps this is well known and I’m just the one dummy who hasn’t picked up a physical thesaurus since childhood, but it struck me as something of a revelation. A thesaurus is not a dictionary of synonyms. A thesaurus is an inside out dictionary, starting with the meaning instead of the word, and revealing the way those meanings relate to each other.
Take a look at this beauty:
Means of Safety / Source of Danger. I had no idea that a thesaurus could offer up such idea-driven word groupings.
The more I use this new resource, the more I love it. I still use the web version as well, but I’d forgotten that the core concept behind what a thesaurus is makes it impossible to digitize. A book that categorizes terms by meaning rather than by the word itself can’t be searchable without losing its heart.
So, here’s my tip for the day: use online thesauri (I certainly still do; it’s faster), but when you find yourself on the hunt for a particularly juicy the word, take a look in a physical thesaurus too. You might be surprised by what you find.