The Joys of the Thesaurus

In my new life as a paid blogger, and as an unpaid blogger, I have rediscovered Roget's Thesaurus of Words and Phrases. Of course you can find an on-line version of Roget's popular handbook, but I much prefer an edition from the late 1940's that my dad used.  I know this because he wrote his name inside the front cover. Since he's been gone for over 20 years, I can only speculate that he needed this in the early 1960's when he was a fundraising professional for North Central College in Naperville, IL. He wrote letters, gave speeches, and worked the trenches asking the alumni to donate to their alma mater. The red embossed cover of the book shows enough wear that I can guess he used it regularly. In fact, it falls open automatically to the entry for "giving". He probably needed many different way to ask people to give, and they did give. He was well-respected and his early death left a void in my life and in the lives of his family, friends and colleagues from the college. I still hear stories from people of things he said or did, their personal memories of a man who led a good life.

But back to the thesaurus. In 1805, Peter Mark Roget finished his first draft of a list of words classified according to the ideas they expressed. First published in London in 1852, it was edited, enlarged and added to in many editions every since. The edition I have is divided up into 6 classifications; Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition and Affections. That Roget spent almost 50 years researching and categorizing words before he published shows that this was more an obsession than just a good idea.

So today, some 150 years later, I just look up a word in the back when I'm stumped and turn to a list of possible synonyms that might, or might not, work equally well in my writing.  There are many ways you can say something is beautiful, but which one works best? Is it elegant, graceful, comely, fair, radiant or gorgeous? Sublime, magnificent, handsome, harmonious, bonny? How about dapper, jaunty, superb, grand, imposing?  All are listed as synonyms, but they don't all really mean the same thing, do they? Each word conjures up a completely different image. When you hear of someone who is described as radiant, you don't think of them as dapper. Sublime doesn't imply imposing. And someone or something could be beautiful without being elegant.

I don't know how many words are in the English language, but when you consider Roget's words, new words inching their way into use every year, and all the usual standbys, it's a feast for the mind.  We can describe things so minutely and with such complete distinction that it would be a shame to use the same word repeatedly. So I keep my handy thesaurus close by and refer to it frequently. Dad would be so proud. His book is still giving. Or is it donating? delivering? favoring? contributing? bestowing? endowing? Choose whichever one you like best.

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