Step Away From the Thesaurus and No One Gets Hurt

You know I love my thesaurus, right? I do. I have at least four of them, from various decades dating back to the ’40s (you’d be surprised how useful that is), as well as a rhyming dictionary, a slang dictionary, and something called the Flip Dictionary, which is more fun than any dictionary has a right to be.

Still, I love my thesaurus, for a variety of reasons. It’s especially useful for brainstorming, I think. As noted in a previous post, I often start by make lists of words I might use in a project. A Western-themed copywriting assignment led to a list that included cowboy, cowpoke, buckaroo, buffalo gals, saddle, trail, blaze, lasso, maverick, campfire, pardner, howdy, bandana, and so on. I use word lists to set mood, too; I review the many words that mean, let’s say, elegant—such as classy, courtly, graceful, refined, tasteful—though I may never use them. I just want to feel them, let them roll around in my head and see if they knock anything loose. And they usually do.

But not always. A few weeks ago I drove my friends crazy when I was seeking a word for a man who is worldly, enjoys the good life, and is, perhaps, a bit of a bad boy, although the kind who endears himself to everyone. He’s a bon vivant, though that’s not the word I was looking for. Boulevardier, sophisticate, epicurean, and roué dance around it. This is a man who is cultivated, cosmopolitan, continental, refined, and always gracious; he’s elegant, polished, debonair, cultured. He is a connoisseur of the finer things. But none of these is the word, and I’m still annoyed with myself for all the hours I’ve spent thinking about it. I feel strongly that it might be some sort of British vernacular, and I’m probably going to have to go read a Julian Fellowes novel or three to come up with it. (It’s a tough ol’ job, but someone’s got to do it.)

If you’re a writer, you might have used the thesaurus when you were looking for ways to describe a character’s blue eyes (azure, icy, sky) or blond hair (straw, honey, bleached)—but sometimes I wish you wouldn’t.

No, seriously. I can tell when an author’s spent too much time with his thesaurus at fifty paces. In a manuscript I reviewed for a publisher years ago, someone must have told the author he should replace duplicate words. So he did. He just opened his thesaurus, looked up a word he’d used more than once, and picked substitute words without having a real knowledge of the substitute’s drill-down meaning. For example, I noticed the word aspect used as a substitute for face, as in “he had a look of horror on his aspect.” True story.

That’s an extreme example, but the fact is, a thesaurus is not a shortcut to building vocabulary. There are shades of meaning. And if the word isn’t already in your personal vocabulary, you’re liable to use it incorrectly. It won’t sound like you. The lesson here is when you use the thesaurus too much, two things happen:

1. The unusual words draw attention to themselves.
2. It just doesn’t sound like your voice.

Sure, sometimes the story might call for a sparkly word. You might have a character who speaks with flair. Or you may not be able to remember a word that’s right on the tip of your tongue. By all means, avail yourself of this wonderful tool.

Just be careful. You’re allowed to use words more than once, you know. :) And sometimes plain, simple language helps the reader stay in the story. Sometimes less really is more.

UPDATE: There’s more on this subject here.

Tweet: I can tell when an author’s spent too much time with his thesaurus at 50 paces.
Tweet: A thesaurus is not a shortcut to building vocabulary. Use with caution.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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4 Comments

  1. Michelle Ule says:

    WHAT? You can use a word more than once?

    :-)

    Love my Flip Dictionary!

  2. Ellen says:

    I asseverate: This is a very helpful post.

  3. Elaine says:

    Good to know I’m not the only one who likes a nice thesaurus! I still remember insisting my mom buy me one in fifth grade…and the very perplexed look on her face as she did so. How do you say no to a thesaurus? It wasn’t even for a school assignment, I just really wanted one after having heard they existed.

    Unrelated: While I would always be interested to see someone speak with flare, I think ‘flair’ would be the right fit in the second last paragraph.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Hahaha. THANK YOU for that one! I’ll fix it right now. :) Sometimes one’s mind has a mind of its own.

  4. […] Give us body language (or movement), sure, but don’t use the same old thing time after time. Open your thesaurus, yes, but remember that many of the words are not direct substitutes. (Aspect does not always work […]

  5. […] about voice, and we’ve talked about using simple and elegant prose. We’ve also talked about the overuse of the thesaurus; showing off—or trying to show off—usually outs itself. Best to be […]

  6. […] magazines I read, as well as from my wordy parents. I liked using it too. It’s a delight to have the right word for the right situation. Even if it’s slang. I’m a lifelong reader, a lifelong learner, and a lifelong […]

3 Trackbacks

  1. By The Eyes (Don’t) Have It on 2 March, 2015 at 11:52 am

    […] Give us body language (or movement), sure, but don’t use the same old thing time after time. Open your thesaurus, yes, but remember that many of the words are not direct substitutes. (Aspect does not always work […]

  2. By Study This: The Sea on 9 March, 2015 at 12:43 pm

    […] about voice, and we’ve talked about using simple and elegant prose. We’ve also talked about the overuse of the thesaurus; showing off—or trying to show off—usually outs itself. Best to be […]

  3. By Communication Is the Thing on 29 August, 2016 at 2:38 pm

    […] magazines I read, as well as from my wordy parents. I liked using it too. It’s a delight to have the right word for the right situation. Even if it’s slang. I’m a lifelong reader, a lifelong learner, and a lifelong […]

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