Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Ode to Roget

This morning, while working through the edits for Once an Heiress (releasing March 11!), I found myself clicking over to to shake up a word rut. Seriously, how many times can characters behave in a 'blithe' fashion over the course of a single chapter? Quite a few, evidently.

While perusing the selections for a particular entry, I suddenly heard the voice of my high school AP English teacher chirping, "That's a refreshing word!" And for some reason, it sent my mind tripping to the best reference book I've ever owned.

I asked for powder blue makeup. This periwinkle is
quite unacceptable.
I received Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus for Christmas. I think it was my senior year in high school, the year I took AP English. In short order, I fell in love with that book. I could -- and did -- just sit and read it. Discovering new words has always been a thrill, but my thesaurus did one better: it helped me discover the right words. Roget's taught me about the nuance of language, and the value of saying precisely what one means.

In some ways, a thesaurus is like a paint store. If you go to the paint store for blue paint, you'll find yourself facing a selection of hundreds of different shades, all of which are "blue." There's azure, cadet, Prussian, cobalt, Tiffany, sky, ultramarine, robin's egg... Such wild variety, a veritable rainbow of blue.

Likewise, entries in the thesaurus list synonyms for a single word, but there's a wide range of meaning contained within the selection. For instance, the verb "irritate" is listed as being synonymous with both "annoy" and "enrage." There's a gulf of difference between "annoy" and "enrage," and you'd better decide which one you really mean if you're shopping in the "irritate" department.

My AP English teacher encouraged us to use "refreshing" words. "Very" was verboten in her class. I recall her writing the word on the chalkboard and drawing an X through it. I think the lesson was that if you stick "very" in front of a descriptor, there's probably a better, more precise word to use. Rather than "very fast," one could say "speedy," "rapid," or "expeditious." Instead of "very pretty," one could use "beautiful," "stunning," "exquisite," or "elegant" to more accurately convey meaning. My thesaurus was the holy tome that taught me to appreciate such linguistic subtleties, which, in turn, earned me many a "Good word!" on my class essays.

Synonyms: treasury, reference book, word list, bff
Roget's lived in my backpack for the rest of my school years. After high school, it went to college with me. In addition to my French-English dictionary, it even traveled with me to Europe for my semester abroad. It resided on my shelves, a little battered and greatly creased until, finally, I retired it in a book purge several years ago.

Though I rely on the Internet for my thesaurus needs these days, I'll always have a soft spot for that paperback treasure, as well as for the teacher who encouraged me to think deeper about words. Learning to discern slight variations in meaning and choose the right word are skills that have served me well throughout my academic and professional careers. My heart is filled with gratitude. Appreciation. Thanks.


  1. Mmmm - a post about a book about words = heaven

  2. I use a thesaurus and a book of synonyms. The latter is coming apart at the spine, pages falling out, but it's the one I bought the day I decided to take writing seriously back in 1998. I walked into a Borders and bought the book of synonyms, Writing Down the Bones (Natalie Goldberg), and a rhyming dictionary. I've hardly cracked the last one, read most of the second, but I've used the hell out of the first, and can't make myself replace it.

    As always, I enjoy your posts.

    Hope Clark