Sometimes a writer is on a treasure hunt for a particular word, a specific word that will clinch a certain passage. The French, of course, have a phrase for that type of word. They call it le mot juste, the exact right word. The author Gustave Flaubert was famous for finding le mot juste in his novels, such as Madame Bovary. But what do you do as a writer if le mot juste is just not coming to mind, or if you can think of a word that has the right meaning, but it’s too cliché. What do you do?
Many writers turn to a thesaurus. That reference work is a great bestiary of words, holding almost all the synonyms in the English language. The word literally means “treasury” in Latin—very appropriate.
I have nothing against thesauruses. I love just reading through them and seeing all the possible gradations of meaning that exist among different words that mean almost the same thing, and how those synonyms differ slightly, partly because they are used in different contexts. In fact, when I was thirteen, one of my best friends nicknamed me Roget, I had such a crush on words.
The first English thesaurus was compiled by Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869) in 1805, but the book was not published until 1852. Dr. Roget was a physician from London who served as a human subject for the earliest experiments on the use of nitrous oxide, or “laughing gas,” which he also wrote about.
|Dr. Peter Mark Roget
Roget’s first collection of synonyms was titled, Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. I’ll buy that a thesaurus can facilitate the expression of ideas, but I do believe it has limited use in literary composition.
Why? Because a word that a writer is seeking is almost never as obvious as a synonym of another word that a writer might reject as cliché language. Le mot juste most often appears out of nowhere, a word that surprises, delights, or shocks the reader. A thesaurus will not help a writer leap across a chasm to that sort of word. At best, the thesaurus will help a writer step over a narrow puddle.
Here is an example from a poem that Sylvia Plath wrote right before her untimely death on February 11, 1963. The very last poem in her Collected Poems, dated six days before she died, is titled “Edge.” Describing a woman who has passed away, leaving behind her children, Plath writes:
She has folded
Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden
Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.
Interesting to think about a mother incorporating her children back into her—or maybe the subject of the poem is gathering into herself a kind of childishness in a flight from the tonnage of adulthood.
If Plath had used a thesaurus to find the right word in this passage, she could never have come up with the stunning phrase “the garden//Stiffens and odors bleed/From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.”
Normally, a writer might say that a flower’s scent wafts. But that’s a cliché. If Plath had cast her net wider and looked in a thesaurus under waft, she would only have found drift, float, be carried, etc. More cliché language. You can’t get from tired language to more dynamic speech just with synonyms. A writer has to distort or wring the language till she arrives at something as vivid as a flower bleeding its odor. The search for le mot juste requires imagination, not just a reference work. Well, Plath might have gotten odor from a thesaurus. She could have started with the more conventional aroma or scent and then picked a synonym rarely paired with flower, because of its negative connotations. There, a thesaurus could be useful.
Another example. Three months earlier Plath had penned a poem called “The Childless Woman,” where she writes:
I spin mirrors,
Loyal to my image,
Uttering nothing but blood…
The usual verbs that describe emitting blood might be shed, ooze, spurt, seep, or trickle. (OK, I admit, I got this list from Roget’s Thesaurus.) But Plath goes so much deeper with the verb “Uttering.” The blood of this childless woman’s period is eloquent, it can speak of her emotions. Never could a thesaurus produce that result. It might even impede it. That’s why a writer has to be cautious in using a thesaurus. You can’t get deeper just by casting wider.
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