Tools of the Trade: The Roget’s Thesaurus, Old School

By Ron Fritze


“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Mark Twain
When it comes to advice on writing well, Mark Twain is someone to be heeded. One of the problems that any writer continually faces is maintaining the variety of their word usage. If you are not careful, you can end up using the same word over and over again. To your reader that practice comes across as dull and boring and may cause them rightly to question the extent of your vocabulary. So how do you get some life in your vocabulary and get from the “lightning bug” word to the “lightning” word? Answer, the thesaurus, a word book of synonyms and related concepts.
A thesaurus is a more advanced tool that a dictionary. It requires that the reader know rough definitions of most of the synonyms that it lists. As I mentioned, the thesaurus provides a list of words but those words are not inter-changeable parts. Individual words have nuances and degrees of meaning that need to be matched to the context of what the writer has written. Lazy writers sometimes simply look at the list of synonyms provided by the thesaurus and then pick the most exotic or sophisticated word in the list, a word they may never have seen before. Their goal is to make themselves look intelligent and highly intellectual. Frequently, however, they simply make themselves look amateurish when the word they picked turns out not to be appropriate. No lightening there! So use your thesaurus with your dictionary and don’t use a word that you haven’t looked up.
The classic thesaurus is Roget’s International Thesaurus. It was first published by the English scholar Peter Roget (1779-1869) in 1852. At first glance, Roget’s International Thesaurus appears to be a daunting and opaque work of reference. The important thing to understand, however, is that using Roget’s is a two-step process. It is divided into two big sections. The first is the thesaurus that divides words and their synonyms into eight classes and organizes them by various sub-categories. It is not an alphabetical list of words but under the various categories it lists words and their synonyms. The thesaurus is the heart of the book but you have to use accompanying big index to use the thesaurus effectively. The second section is a detailed index to the thesaurus so that the reader can find the word or words that they need. So let’s pick word, “outrage” for example. Looking in the index we will see eight different usages of outrage that will lead to even more detailed listing in the thesaurus. With that kind of help you can add some lightning to your writing. So get yourself a thesaurus and use it. Your readers will thank you for the lightning.

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