Recently, my kids’ grade school was celebrating Teacher Appreciation Week. Amen to that. My son was writing his teacher a thank-you note.
Mom? Do we have a thesaurus?
Well, of course we do… But what synonym are you looking for?
What’s the context? What are you trying to say? As in, your suggestions for my science project were really helpful.
We took a few minutes scanning bookshelves and found that the old tome was just an arm’s length away after all. So we took our first look at that musty old Roget’s (Roget’s International Thesaurus, Fourth Edition, 1977).
Its tagline? Indispensable for everyone who writes or speaks. It offered more than 250,000 words and phrases, and a handful of choices for really.
The next day, I popped into our local, amazing independent bookstore (shout-out to Island Books). I breezed through the “reference/writing” section, a frequent destination. (See under: “redundant.”)
My eyes caught a title that was front-facing on the bottom shelf: Roget’s International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition (2010). To my eye, someone had bought one copy; one copy remained, recessed on the shelf.
I picked up the weighty paperback and skimmed a few pages. Its history: Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his Thesaurus in 1852, when he was 73 years old, after a career in medicine. … The seventh edition has a text of about 464,000 words and phrases. It made me imagine what kind of person could be so dedicated to the classification and care of modern language. Someone who could—patiently—turn chaos to order with an ear for tone and nuance. Consider the work of 464,000 words identified, parsed, and organized into 15 categories, a tome totaling 1,282 pages.
In the opening, “How to Use this Book,” we learn that in 1805, when Roget began putting together a handy list of words for his own use, he pioneered a new concept: “the grouping of words according to ideas.” And when he brought this idea to fruition, “He called it a ‘thesaurus,’ (from the Greek and Latin, meaning ‘treasury’ or ‘storehouse’).
I was sold. I had to buy it. If someone who carried this task through the last—almost 200—years, loved words (and the people who use them) that much, I had to be in on it. And of course I wanted to stay current with those 200,000-ish additions.
But a penny-pinching moment brought doubt. Am I willing to fork over $19.99 for the latest and greatest Revised and updated…the ultimate cure for tip-of-the-tongue-itis? Is it the latest indispensable pickup I’ll never really use? A three-inch-thick slab of real estate on my too-cluttered bookshelves?
In the reference section, I also chose a copy of “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long, an impulse purchase I knew would not collect dust. Then up at the store’s front register, I showed the Roget’s and asked a sales person, “Is this thesaurus the one? The best one?”
The sales person gave me a look of the perplexed. “Well, yes.” Pause. “To the extent that anyone cares about the thesaurus anymore: This is the one.”
The moment of truth: Do I care?
Am I that anyone? In real life, when I’m on deadline and searching for that just-right word, would I really set that lexicography doorstop on my lap and take the time to cross-reference? Or would I do what I usually do, which is click on the Thesaurus icon, cozy built-in to Microsoft Word for my easy on-screen convenience? In this battle between pixel and page, which will win?
Somewhere between reality check and romance, there is grace. In Roget’s listing number 247.18, “very” brings us to a truth, hidden amid the enthusiasm of “exceedingly” and the dignity of “quite” and the everyday simplicity of “pretty.” The big book emphasizes that this is not a volume of synonyms so much as word stories. The original idea acts like a nucleus, and all the other options circle its orbit. Then the discerning person, anyone who writes or speaks, can choose.
Standing there, numb with the paradox of choice, I pictured my son, and considered his search for the most accurate word. Writing this now reminds me of that kid in The Lorax. Thankfully Roget’s not the Once-ler, but rather a deft messenger, handing down that truffula seed from the past to, just maybe, help us treasure and store all our words.
I bought the book, had it gift-wrapped with a ribbon, and waited for the bus.
So the question for the day: Do you care?