April 23, 2019

Don't Fear the Thesaurus

“As reference books go, the thesaurus, these days, is one step up in respectability from the rhyming dictionary. To use one is to betray something embarrassing about yourself. To be accused of using one is to be accused both of pretentiousness and of using words whose meaning you don’t really know. (For instance: I originally wrote “accused of malapropism” in that previous sentence, but then checked the dictionary and discovered this refers to mistakes based on sound.) One goes to the thesaurus to find, as they say, a “ten-dollar word.”

Perhaps the best example of this sort of condemnation comes from Simon Winchester, the author of a book about the Oxford English Dictionary, who once wrote in The Atlantic that Roget’s Thesaurus “should be roundly condemned as a crucial part of the engine work that has transported us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity” and concludes that it provides “quick and easy solutions for the making of the middlebrow, the mindless, and the mundane.” Or, by way of a more recent (and certainly more mild) example, from The Morning News’s “Tournament of Books”: “Milkman seems to be overly occupied with its own style, its difference, and its reliance on a thesaurus…to notice that the poetry to justify that stylistic occupation is simply absent.”

This set me back on my heels for a moment. I know what this kind of quip means. But what is it saying? Milkman, a book I am currently reading, does not strike me as ambitious on the level of vocabulary. (At one point the narrator voices a complaint about a teacher who uses the words “fugacious” and “crepuscular.”) It’s also the kind of book that, thanks to its subject matter — female experience of male violence in Northern Ireland — you sort of expect to have recommended to you as a way of “getting the Northern Irish experience.” Such a reader would not be prepared for the skittering, looping quality of the narrator’s observations, her sharp prejudices, what she expects and what she doesn’t expect, the frequently bizarre dialogue, and the book’s sense of humor.”

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