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Praising the Thesaurus


During a recent short story workshop, we were discussing word choice when one student confessed, "I never consult a thesaurus."

Silence. But a door creaked open because what followed was a steady stream of admissions. "Me neither." "Never." "I don't even own one."

Someone finally explained he felt a thesaurus would take away from his original intent and expression.

The first-is-best approach to writing. It stretches back to the Surrealists and their attempt to escape the rational mind via automatic writing--spontaneously writing without censoring thoughts. The idea lived on through Jack Kerouac's "Spontaneous Prose," with its "no pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained...". And Allen Ginsberg's idea that literature should come from the soul without conscious restrictions. (But how, then, to account for the penciled marks in the margins of "Howl"?)

Well, in this age of confession, let me confess (or fess up, come clean, plead guilty...) in my case, first is never best. (How about tenth? Twentieth? Thirtieth version?) So Roget's Thesaurus, 960-pages heavy, sits on the corner of my desk, as holy as any sacred book. It's pages whisper to me nearly every day, and soon I'll build a small shrine to it because of all that it has offered. Roget's guides me to the best word to thread through an extended metaphor or make my images resonate. Just take a look at the simple word, ‘Bring.' Here's a short list: carry, bear, take, convey, transport, deliver, transmit, conduct, send, escort, usher, guide, lead, fetch, get... on and on. Each word comes with a different tone, rhythm, style; each uttered by a different sort of character.

For those looking for an even heftier sacred book, Oxford University Press is publishing the two-volume, 4,448-page Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. This sublime monster costs $316.00. Or, there's always the on-line thesaurus. Either way, they both derive from the Greek, thesauros, which means, in every sense of the word, treasure.

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Hi Nina, I have a thesaurus,

Hi Nina, I have a thesaurus, but it sits on a shelf collecting dust. I like to first let ideas flow out of me, but I know there is always a better word out there--better meaning, better sound, etc., as you point out. Thank you for the nudge and reminder through your blog!

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Thank you, Rebecca, for your

Thank you, Rebecca, for your comment. For the first draft, my thesaurus sits untouched, for the most part. Dust collects, creating a soft edge to the letters on the cover. It's only on revision that I take my sleeve, wipe it off and start combing through it.