I have long been a devotee of J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder, the Colossus of the thesaurus world, a reference mutant juiced up on creative steroids. Rodale, known more for his organic living evangelism, was apparently also a lover of words and the palaces that are built on them, and for that we should all be thankful. In his 1961 classic, he raises the thesaurus ideal above mere synonyms and offers up a cornucopia of choices for stuck writers. He goes beyond the literal and brings to bear the figurative, the loose, and the lovely, to free the bogged and boggled mind.
Sidenote: I fear that The Synonym Finder that lives on my shelf, or more often my table, was another of the true and actual gifts that my jackwagon of an ex-husband left in my life, and so I will here give credit where credit is due:
Thank you, jackwagon. Thank you for the loves of my life, my three beautiful girls, who make life worth living. Thank you for the faith that you brought me into kicking and screaming, that sustains me, that is Life Itself. And thank you even for this great red book that I certainly saw no worth in back in the days of our youth, but which has been my constant companion since setting sail on the writing craft.
So anyway, a thesaurus…
Yes, I have long-heard the cries of heresy from certain corners of the writing crowd when it comes to thesaurus usage, and I sympathize. I, too, have clutched my brain in agony at the reading of an author who has conjured words with his thesaurus, yet failed to utilize a dictionary or a mote of common sense. It is excruciating. Also, I imagine I’ve sat myself at the offending end of this teeter-totter more than once. For my indiscretions I am sorry, and will be henceforth ever-vigilant.
In this respect, when considering those wielding dubious words without license or registration, The Synonym Finder might possibly be a can of nitro added to their already leaden foot. Gasoline on a slow-burning fire. For to dive into these 1400 pages of joy without understanding—or minimally a willingness to learn and grow and a morsel of respect for your reader—well, it would likely render the guilty’s writing indecipherable and infuriating.
But I argue with the anti-thesaurus crowd on behalf of writers everywhere who DO possess the command of language required to brandish such an arsenal responsibly, for the improvement of their writing (and often themselves), for the enlightenment of their readers, and for the general betterment of humanity.
For if you possess the aptitude, or the discernment, or even the intuition to use your words well in the first place, then it is entirely possible that you could also be trusted with a further storehouse of words which may not be always living at your fingertips.
I, for one, find that the right words—no matter how at-the-ready when I’m walking through the woods or driving down the road—prefer to play hide-and-seek in the folds of my gray matter whenever I sit down to commit them to paper (or screen).
Also, I don’t know them all.
And sometimes the time is right to expand the old vocabulary, for what is a writer, if not a collector of words?
And so I am an unapologetic student of J.I. Rodale’s masterpiece. I look to it often to pull me through the punky patches of my brain, and to spark to life new and recovered chunks of my vocabulary. And I pray that this classic may never bypass my brain, but only serve as a pleasant adjunct.
Adieu: be vigitant, I beseech you.*
*Master of linguistics, Dogberry
(NOT an irresponsible use of TSF,
irresponsible quoting of Shakespeare)
For the record, I didn’t use a single new-to-me word in this post. In case you were wondering. I did, however, believe that jackwagon was an Ottinger original, forged through years of card-playing and insulting banter. Turns out my husband isn’t as original as I thought.