Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Thesaurus Project

I'm starting a new project about the abuses of the Thesaurus (it might be a short-lived project). I recall once while teaching Freshman Composition that I had a student writing a paper about why people should take up jogging. Obviously, she had to use the word jog, jogged, and jogging quite a bit. Seeing that word too much, she decided she needed an alternative. So, about halfway through the paper, with the "help" of the Thesaurus, her argument changed a bit as to why people should take up cantering. (Yes, it's a kind of jog, but only horses do it.)

I use that story to explain to my students that the Thesaurus can serve to make us look silly, too. There's no such thing as a true synonym.

I also see creative writers abusing the Thesaurus. Maybe it started because the much-admired Cormac McCarthy has such a vast vocabulary. The thing is, I think McCarthy actually has that vast vocabulary. It can't be faked. Looking up words in the Thesaurus to replace perfectly fine and simple words can serve to make creative writers look silly, too.

For instance,

Jonathan stepped off of the sidewalk and walked in the road.

can become...

Jonathan stepped off of the footway and promenaded onto the asphalt.

[Yes, footway is a word as is promenaded (but only allowed in 19th Century novels) and you are correct that roads are made of asphalt... but it all makes you sound like an ass-fault]

Don't be an ass-fault.

Really, all of this lead-in is just me building up to my project, which is to rewrite the opening lines of famous fictional works as though the writers had doubted their first choice of words and turned to the Thesaurus to "make them more impressive".

Here goes:

From Moby Dick:

Call me Ishmael.


When addressing my personhood, your vocal folds and oral orifice should work in harmony to produce Ishmael.

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