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In Any Given Word

Posted on Monday, November 28, 2011 at 12:51 PM

Thesauruses with an angle, each usable on certain occasions

By Peter P. Jacobi

In the recently published book, OK, the Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word (Oxford University Press), author Allan Metcalf spends 210 pages retracing the etymology of the word. He even includes a chapter devoted to an offspring, "Okey-dokey."

It's up to you to determine whether all that verbiage about so circumscribed a subject is worth your personal pursuit. But for some reason or other, the book's presence on the market led me to a column subject, about words, more specifically about what's in a given word. As writers, we must weigh the words we use constantly and carefully, always seeking to determine if we've assigned the proper ones to articulate a thought or action or scene we have in mind and wish to express in print or sound.

We go to the dictionary to provide meaning, should we be fuzzy about what a considered word actually signifies. On the other hand, if we seek an alternate word to "OK" or any other in our huge and ever growing language, then we turn to the thesaurus, "a book of words and especially synonyms," as the dictionary defines it.

I turn to it all the time. In fact, I turn to them all the time. Over the years, I've collected a pile of variations. Let me share information about some of the thesauruses I have, each with an angle, each usable on certain occasions.

Generic but Widely Used

On top of the pile is the generic one, the widely used one, Roget's; mine currently is a Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus in Dictionary Form (Barnes & Noble Books, but there are other versions, such as The Oxford Thesaurus, American Edition). Roget's does not spend 210 pages on "OK, but, choosing to spell the word "okay," it supplies three sets of synonyms: for the noun okay as "acceptable, satisfactory," for the noun okay as "agreement," and the verb okay as "agree to."

Under each, you find alternatives aplenty.

Now I haven't forgotten what my journalism professors told me way back when, a command I've passed along to my own students: that in news stories, we should depend primarily on the word "said," when quoting someone, with perhaps an "added" or "continued" thrown in for seasoning. And never mind that my Roget's lists 59 synonyms.

But I must admit that even for "say," I seek out and use alternatives, and since I don't write a lot of news stories any more, why not? Anyway, I love my Roget's.

The Original Thesaurus

The original, conceived and first published by Peter Mark Roget in 1852, was not in dictionary, A to Z, format. It arranged words and phrases according to meanings. And you can still get such a Roget's, Roget's International Thesaurus, Seventh Edition (Collins Reference). I have one of these, too, and it's not gathering dust up on the shelf. Here, one is required to look for the word, "say," in an alphabetical listing in the back; there one will find a selection of noun and verb synonyms that are expanded upon in the body of the book ("affirmation," "speech," "speak up," "utter," just for instances). Purists tend to prefer this version, and though it adds a step to the hunt, it divides the word into conceptual arrangements which help the hunter quickly recognize differentiations in the meanings of synonyms.

That may not be terribly important for "say, since it is a word we all understand and its synonyms are almost as familiar. But take the word "restitution." My alphabetical version puts the words "compensation, repayment" next to it and then gives me an "amends" to "squaring things" list. The original version, on the other hand, offers me a set of wide-ranging possibilities in the back-of-the-book listing ("atonement," "compensation," "payment," "recompense," "restoration," "return," "reversion"). I can then select the word closest in meaning to what I am looking for and seek options. Take your pick of Roget's, or benefit from having one of each.

For the Writer in Everyone

Since you, my readers, are writers and editors, you might wish to look into the purchase of Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus (Oxford), which is heralded "for the writer in everyone." The authors of this one provide sentences to support a given usage and then add synonyms for that particular meaning of the word. Example: "say, verb 1 she felt her stomach flutter as he said her name SPEAK, utter, voice, pronounce, give voice to, vocalize. 2 "I must go," she said DECLARE, state, announce, remark, observe, mention, comment, note, add; reply, respond, answer, rejoin; informal come out with.... 4 I can't conjure up the words to say how I feel EXPRESS, put into words, phrase, articulate, communicate, make known, put/get across, convey, verbalize; reveal, divulge, impart, disclose; imply, suggest." And so forth. Very useful.

I also like Sisson's Synonyms, An unabridged synonym and related-term locater, by A. F. Sisson (Prentice Hall). It is alphabetical in approach.

A Blend of Thesaurus with Dictionary

S.I. Hayakawa's Choose the Right Word, Second Edition (Harper, Collins), is an update by former Columbia English Professor Eugene Ehrlich of former U.S. Senator and semanticist Hayakawa's work. It blends the thesaurus concept with dictionary and English usage manual. "Say" is not one of the words selected in this hefty volume. But the alphabetically nearby "sad" is, followed with the synonyms "blue," "dejected," "depressed," "despondent," "disconsolate,", "lugubrious," and "melancholy." What follows in the entry is a thorough explanation of what these words mean and how they should be differentiated.

"These adjectives all characterize unhappy or despairing states of mind and, in some cases, situations that cause or are evocative of such feelings," one reads. "Sad, the mildest and most general term, is also the least explicit, giving no hint as to how downcast a person may be or for what reason. One may feel sad because of the passing of summer or sad because a child leaves home to be married. A funeral may be a sad occasion, but so may the cutting of a virgin forest for timber. A monkey peering out of a cage may have the sad eyes of a lonely old man." And so forth for the other words in the listing.

The Thinker's Thesaurus

Peter Meltzer's The Thinker's Thesaurus (Norton) is subtitled "Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words." The author devised it, he says, "to fill the void between conventional thesauruses and rare-word books." He points out that in it, "Nearly all of the synonyms, while completely legitimate, are harder or more sophisticated words than one would find in a regular thesaurus" and that, "Because the synonyms are more interesting and generally more unusual than those found in conventional thesauruses, the entries have examples from current books or periodicals," so to demonstrate how the words are properly used and "that these are real words currently used by real writers in the real world, not obsolete words that are never used anymore."

When I turn to the word "sad," I get the adjective "tristful" and a reference to a poem by Richard Wilbur. I get "sad (as in dejected) adj. chapfallen. See dejected." Turning to "dejected," I read again of the adjective "chapfallen," followed by: "Under the headline 'Wielders of mass deception?' on the cover of this week's Economist, President Bush sits, stroking his chin, mouth covered by his right hand, his brow furrowed, with ... a melancholy look that seems to say, 'Now what?' Seated next to him is a chapfallen British Prime Minister Tony Blair, weary head propped up by his left hand, whose unspoken thought could easily be, 'I'm not his poodle, but no one believes me.'" Admittedly, a rather specialized thesaurus, but it contains loads of interesting examples along with good, underused words that can enliven one's copy.

More follows next month.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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