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War of the Words


Today's thesaurus-makers battle for the right to define our world

By Richard Sine

THE RECENTLY published Roget's Superthesaurus deserves its rather pretentious prefix for no other reason than the fact that it is the only such book that dares suggest more than a few token terms for what little boys do with too much time and their hands.

Under "masturbation," the Superthesaurus lists not only the rather prudish "self-gratification," the censorious "self-abuse" and the Biblical "onanism" but also more colorful terms like "beating the bishop," "cuffing the carrot," "choking the gopher" and my personal favorite, "jerking the gherkin."

In fact, the Superthesaurus is arguably the closest thing the thesauric world has to a hard-core pornographer, and not just because no other tome acknowledges so freely what most people mean when they use the word "ejaculate" or "screw." It's because the Superthesaurus is a quick and dirty reference work; it knows what readers want and gives it to them plain. It is as generous with synonyms as a blue movie is with skin. It peddles itself as brazenly as the neon marquee for a Times Square peep show.

"The ultimate thesaurus and word finder. A revolution in reference books!" brags the front cover. "The most innovative and useful thesaurus on the market," trumpets the introduction. The swaggery alone does not suffice--the book also harshes mercilessly on its simpering cousins: "Superthesaurus is arranged alphabetically. It has no space-wasting index to make itself look bigger than it really is."

I had always assumed that lexicographers constituted a pretty mild-mannered lot, that they'd leave the serious preening and strutting to, say, Big Six accountants. But as I surveyed the sizable collection of thesauri that elbow for attention at your local bookstore, I realized that the Superthesaurus' circus bark constitutes only a slightly harder sell than usual.

It's no longer enough to boast of 250,000 synonyms or more. The St. Martin's Roget's Thesaurus cover houses "The Best Thesaurus in the World." Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, with its incessant crowing about "revolutionary" design and "up-to-the-minute" language, sounds like a desperate traveling vacuum salesman. The Basic Book of Synonyms and Antonyms, by contrast, comes across as gravely populist, disparaging longer books for including "complicated, rare words."

To the lay thesauran, this linguistic jousting by thesaurus publishers may seem like much ado about nothing. We turn to a thesaurus simply when we cannot find a word on the tip of our tongue. ("Like 'spirits from the vasty deep,' they come not when we call," wrote Peter Mark Roget, the pragmatic dreamer who started it all.) Or we want to avoid using the same word over and over again.

So what's the big deal? How hard can it be to come up with a list of synonyms for most words in the language?

The rare word seeker who has scanned a lengthy thesaurus introduction may begin to understand the difficulties involved. Indeed, the aspiring thesaurus compiler runs headlong into a field of the thorniest linguistic and epistemological brambles. Sure, SuperthesaurusMan Marc McCutcheon deserves credit as only the second lexist to list "masturbation" (after J.I. Rodale, who in 1978 braved just a few gamey synonyms in his otherwise unstintingly generous The Synonym Finder). McCutcheon did adequate work on his lonely task. But didn't he ever run across "slamming the salami," "bopping the bologna" or "whipping the skippy?"

For that matter, doesn't a more modern meaning of masturbation relate to "self-indulgence" (as in intellectual masturbation)? If so, shouldn't the Superthesaurus have included synonyms for self-indulgence, or at least cross-referenced them? Isn't self-indulgence a form of "immaturity," which brings us to our aforementioned little boys? Where, indeed, does the thesaurist's duty end? How far, and how firmly, need he guide the user along the vast, intricate spider's web of our language?


What about web thesauri?


Words to the Unwise

I MYSELF am a shameless thesauritician. As a boy, I was more furtive; I worried that using a thesaurus was a sort of cheating. I thought a thesaurus was a Cliffs Notes of language. Today, however, I know my tools and when to use them.

"Every workman in the exercise of his art should be provided with proper implements," Roget wrote in the eloquent introduction to his 1852 thesaurus, adding, "It is therefore essential to [the writer's] success that he be provided with a copious vocabulary."

To the immature writer with too much time on his hands, however, the modern thesaurus can become more than an instrument of self-indulgence--it can wreak pure havoc on the language. The English teacher of a friend of mine once strictly forbade use of a thesaurus by her students, no doubt tired of reading in term papers about A Christmas Carol how the most "illiberal" Ebenezer Scrooge had "transmogrified" into a truly "ample" and "bounteous" gentleman.

This gravitation toward laziness is why almost every thesaurus contains a sort of Surgeon General of Lexicographer's warning in the introduction, sometimes in the very first sentence: "There is no such thing as an absolute synonym."

Being a glorious ragout of Greek, Latin, French, German and other tongues, English has absorbed many words that express similar ideas. Most seeming synonyms, however, vary at least slightly in meaning, applicability or tone. A thesaurus might "boast" or even "crow," but it won't "swagger" or "strut." The French "automobile" denotes the exact same object as the Middle English "car," but the French term has acquired a more formal tone over the years.

There is a corollary to the Surgeon General of Lexicography Warning that most thesauri also contain in their introductions: "Consult your dictionary if unclear on a meaning." This caveat has much the same effect as over-the-counter drug labels suggesting a visit to the doctor at the first sign of dizziness or nausea.

"Remember that no two words mean exactly the same thing," says Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus. "It is the subtle nuance and flavor of particular words that give the English language its rich and various texture. While we turn to a thesaurus to find different, more expressive ways of speaking and writing, we must turn to a dictionary, a sophisticated semantic tool, to determine meaning." (The suggestion is particularly apt coming from the 21st Century, perhaps the most wantonly indiscriminate purveyor of synonyms on the market. Many "synonyms" in its overflowing lists are really second cousins at best.)

Lords of the Flyleafs

TO SOME thesaurus compilers, however, these warnings provide but the palest and sickliest of excuses. These strict lexi-plinarians plainly fear that unleashing a laundry list of synonyms on a legion of schoolchildren, with no discussion of their proper usage, would be akin to marooning them on an ocean atoll without any adult supervision.

Within days, you'd have a scene out of Lord of the Flies: War-painted schoolboys maliciously slinging random words at each other, indulging in wild orgies of dictional self-gratification. At the center of one such throng a young Mick Jagger, clad in torn knickers and sullied blazer, is stomping about shouting "I can't get no--con-tent-ment!"

Fear not! Enter Merriam-Webster, white spats gleaming on the sand. "There has arisen a state of affairs which makes us believe that we are at a point where a stand must be taken if we are to avert chaos in the field," asserts the laughingly verbose introduction to the priggish Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms.

The Dictionary of Synonyms is neither a dictionary nor a particularly generous supplier of synonyms. It's essentially a guide to synonym usage, though a quite thorough and helpful one. Did you know that there's a real difference between a "pharmacist," an "apothecary" and a "druggist"? What about between "fate," "destiny" and "lot"? Well, neither did I. Other thesauri, such as the more dated Funk and Wagnalls, take a similar tack.

Closely related to the usage-centered thesaurus is the meaning-centered thesaurus. If you doubted my earlier contention that thesaurus-makers are a boastful lot, you haven't read Roget's II: The New Thesaurus, which is "a book devoted entirely to meaning," according to the first sentence of its introduction. I breathed a huge sigh of relief after reading this line. Thank the Lord! I thought. I'm so tired of slogging through all of these meaningless books!

Sadly, Roget's II disappointed me on this count. All it intended to do was dissect the different elements of a word's meaning, like denotation, connotation and range of applicability. I heard that shtick in seventh grade.

Roget's II offers a sort of schizophrenic cross between a thesaurus and a dictionary, but handles neither job well. It defines every word in a cursory manner, wasting space defining common words. Then it eschews long lists of synonyms in favor of a smaller number of "core" meanings, each with a meager handful of synonyms. Look up a word that isn't a core meaning, and you'll end up flipping through "See" references until you find one.

My search for that gratifying cornucopia of synonyms--so rewarding with Roget's Superthesaurus, Rodale's The Synonym Finder and the Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus--was endlessly frustrating with Roget's II. I had asked for bread, and Roget's II gave me crumbs.

Computer-based thesauri share similar virtues and drawbacks. Click on a word, and the Microlytics Word Finder instantly delivers windows brimming with helpful synonyms for that word's every possible meaning. The Microsoft Word Thesaurus, by comparison, either doesn't recognize your word or keeps you clicking through one core meaning after another until you happen upon a handful of suggestions. Your mechanical mouse, having completed a stark and elaborate maze, finds only a moldy little lump of cheddar.

Ultimately, meaning-centered thesauri like the Microsoft Word thesaurus and Roget's IIcome off as pretty condescending. They refuse to give me what I want because they don't trust me to use words properly. But if I didn't appreciate the subtle distinctions between "drunk" and "tipsy," or "humbled" and "humiliated," I wouldn't have bothered with a thesaurus in the first place.

Original Synonym

PETER MARK ROGET had figured this all out in 1852. If supplied with a "copious store of words and phrases," he wrote, "adapted to express all the recognizable shades and modification of the general idea under which those words and phrases are arranged," the writer won't need any help selecting among the words. Instead, an "instinctive tact will rarely fail to lead him to the proper choice."

Unfortunately, many writers who have attempted to use the original Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases have found themselves hurling the book across the study before they get anywhere near their proper choice. It is such a Victorian relic that it's shocking to still find it on so many writers' bookshelves. Do astronomers still turn to Copernicus for guidance? Do physicists turn to Aristotle? I doubt it, but writers continue to use Roget's.

Young writers who are introduced to Roget's as their first thesaurus risk being permanently scarred by the experience. Still, the volume remains fascinating as a living piece of history. It opens a window on a more optimistic time when, as writer Steve Steinberg has put it, "the scope of human knowledge was still imaginable and the universe was thought to be rational."

Peter Mark Roget was a physician, not a lexicographer. Born in 1779 in London, he helped found the Manchester Medical School; wrote chapters for the Encyclopedia Britannica; and founded the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, for which he wrote light scientific treatises.

He was, above all, a useful man. Historians would best avoid comparing him with Samuel Johnson, the mordant wit who created the first popular dictionary. Instead, compare him with Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist who acted as Roget's happy muse.

In 1732, Linnaeus was given $50 by the Royal Society of Science to do a field study in Lapland, near the Arctic Circle. He spent five months trekking nearly one thousand miles through the region. The plants he collected along the way became the foundation of his Species Planatarum, itself the foundation of modern taxonomy. His system found a slot for every type of natural life under a particular genus, species, order, class, phylum or kingdom.

Roget wanted to tame the linguistic world much as Linnaeus tamed the natural one. He intended to classify every word in the language by the idea it expressed. He traipsed through the dictional fields just as Linnaeus traipsed through the Lap, attempting to fit every word in the language that wasn't a proper noun into one of six "Classes." Under the classes were "sections," and under the sections were "heads." This is why at the beginning of Roget's you will find a "Synopsis of Categories," which lists every class, section and head.

I have never used the Synopsis of Categories, and frankly, it scares me. Roget obviously intended that if you had an idea in mind you could look up the corresponding word by category. I sincerely doubt, however, that anyone looking for a synonym for "interfere" is going to want to start under Class "Dimensions," go under Section "Centric (general)" and find what they're looking for under the head "Interjacence." Other amusing heads include "Decrement," "Unmeaningness," "Consanguinity" and "Preterition."

The hapless user can only thank Jehovah for the index at the back, where she can look up "normal" words. Even the index, however, can be a pain. The index listing for "interfere" refers the reader to eight possible meanings and eight numbered places in the book, including "disagree," "counteract," "obstruct" and, weirdly enough, "interfere" itself.

Thesaurus of Babel

BY ARRANGING itself by idea rather than word, however, the classic Roget's Thesaurus does anticipate the perennial question, "What do you call that thing?" In more recent years, that question has spawned the reverse dictionary, which starts with concepts and works its way down.

Reverse dictionaries can be useful. The Roget's Superthesaurus includes a reverse-dictionary element called "Word Find," which spits out freely associated words to the main entry along with brief definitions. For example, seeing a picture of a bewhiskered thesaurus author on a bookjacket, I looked in the Superthesaurus under "beard." There I discovered that the thesaurus author's pointed, medium-length beard is probably called a "cadiz."

Anyone who has used a reverse dictionary, however, knows of its rather severe limits. It's ultimately a much more ambitious and poorly defined project than a dictionary. After all, there are an infinite number of ideas in the world. Many of them have not yet even been expressed. How could you possibly classify them all? And how do you decide which ones can't fit in your book? What word, precisely, describes the idea expressed by the "Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow" soliloquy in Macbeth, except for that exact speech in those exact words?

Roget had much grander designs on his mind than merely helping his readers find the elusive word on the tip of the tongue. Practical as he was, Roget came from an age infatuated with idea that the key to universal happiness lay in discovering the perfect system, whether political, linguistic, or scientific.

Roget believed that with the right classification system, a thesaurus could be built that included every word in every language. And this "Polyglot Lexicon" would bring his ultimate dream a big step closer. At the climax of his introduction, he revealed his hope that his system would help fulfill "that splendid aspiration of philanthropists--the establishment of a Universal Language," which, through its promotion of international understanding, would lead to "a golden age of union and harmony among the several nations and races of mankind."

The sentiment is very nice, but Roget's rather imperialistic idea lost momentum long ago. We understand now that although humans of all origins share many ideas in common and should attempt to share them, each particular language retains a sound, a history and a particular accretion of meanings that no culture would want to give up. The leap to Esperanto, the most widely considered universal language, would leave behind the English of Shakespeare, the French of Baudelaire, the Spanish of Neruda, the Japanese of Basho.

A Legion of Lexicographers

ASTONISHINGLY, lexicographers continue to build new thesauri on Roget's abstruse model. Roget coined the term "thesaurus" from a Greek term that meant "treasury" or "storehouse." His work was not merely a synonym finder but a "storehouse of knowledge."

These late-model lexists have out-Rogeted Roget in this respect by deciding to include the proper nouns, which Roget sagely omitted, for fear of losing control of his work. This is how you end up with such queer beasts as the Roget's International Thesaurus, which includes 20 kinds of electronic circuits, 21 Celtic deities, 17 ladles, 28 laxatives, 17 pieces of hockey equipment and 166 kinds of mania, including "Gorbymania" and "Chinamania."

How should we compare this distinguished work to, for example, the Bartlett's Roget's Thesaurus, which takes a similar approach, listing human bones, Notable Friendships in History, and Stations of the Cross? Perhaps we shall begin by noting that Bartlett's doesn't even list hockey equipment. It does, however, enumerate an impressive 88 breeds of swine. The International clocks in at only 16.

I'm willing to pin the medal on Bartlett's, which justifies every penny of its $18.95 price tag on a single list, "Collective Names for Animals." There follow 285 such designations, including a "bloat" of hippopotami, an "obstinacy" of buffaloes, a "mutation" of thrushes, a "kindle" of kittens, a "gang" of elks, a "murder" of crows, a "true love" of turtledoves and a "zeal" of zebras.

It's a delightful tally, though only a zoologist would find it more than occasionally useful. Which such inventories to include in your thesaurus is plainly an arbitrary decision. How worthwhile is it, you may ask, to plunk down good cash for such a thesaurus when the local library is a few miles away or the vast informational resources of the Internet are as close as your study?

An editor at the Atlantic Monthly, writing a thesaurus introduction back in 1871, announced that the book was one of the few he would need if stranded on a desert island. This didn't happen much even in 1871. It happens even less now, whether you're a schoolboy or a skipper.

Roget's International and Bartlett's both tweak with the classic thesaurus to make it more comprehensible to the modern reader. For example, Robert L. Chapman, the becadizened editor of Roget's International, has concluded that Roget's original classification scheme is based on an outdated "Platonic-Aristotelian" system. He replaces this with a "developmental-existential" system based on more modernized classes such as "The Body and the Senses" and "Occupations and Crafts."

I imagine that at the last annual convention of thesaurus-makers, the Platonic-Aristotelians sat on one side of the ballroom and the Developmental-Existentialists sat on the other, casting snide remarks across the aisle and making separate party plans. For the rest of us, however, tinkering with the classifications doesn't do much to make these books easier to use when all you want is a synonym, dammit.

In this information age, when most of us have access to too much information rather than too little, Professor Chapman has lent himself a strangely quixotic and archaic task. Listing, for example, 14 kinds of optical instruments without any elaboration on the actual function of those obscure devices is little more than a self-indulgent editorial exercise--the intellectual equivalent, one might say, of jerking the gherkin.

Roget's Superthesaurus by Marc McCutcheon, Writer's Digest; 609 pages; $22.99 paper

Other titles mentioned in this review:
Webster's New Dictionary of Synonyms, Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Bartlett's Roget's Thesaurus, Roget's International Thesaurus, Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus, Roget's II: The New Thesaurus, Microsoft Word Thesaurus (computer), Microlytics Word Finder (computer), The Synonym Finder

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From the November 7-13, 1996 issue of Metro

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