Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why a Thesaurus Is of Limited Use to a Writer

Sometimes a writer is on a treasure hunt for a particular word, a 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 let’s say that, in this case, le mot juste is just not coming to mind, or if you can think of a word that has the right meaning, 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 in the contexts where they are used. 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
His 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 thing 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.

Sylvia Plath
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 cliché diction. 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 unexpected 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.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer


  1. Agreed completely. In an interview with yours truly published in AWP's magazine, I said that I thought the use of the thesaurus was a problem for poets, and that using a word found there would pretty much always make you look you were wearing somebody else's clothes. I was surprised by how upset a couple of the letters they received in response were , as if I'd done something anti-intellectual by counseling poets not to seek advice there. I think it's actually the opposite; building your verbal resources by reading widely, exploring unfamiliar disciplines and just generally being curious, but it's a much richer way to find words. Plus you'll know a lot more about the words you're using.

    1. Mark: Thanks so much for your comment. Maybe this is the difference between the Enlightenment approach to cataloguing the world, which the thesaurus reflects, and the Romantic vision of perceiving the world through the imagination.