The first time I handled a thesaurus, I was about 11 years old. I flipped through the book, trying to understand the purpose of the collected words. I found the section on color and read through the lists. All those words just to describe a shade of blue!
It was love at first sight.
As an adult, I am amazed at how down on the thesaurus writers can be. The only mention of the thesaurus I have ever found in writing books is always negative and boils down to a single rule: Don’t touch it.
The argument is that, in the search for a different word from the one she fears to repeat, the writer succumbs to inaccurate word use as well as ostentatious writing. But that doesn’t give the writer any credit for intelligence, nor does it allow for those cases where the writer is looking for a word because the one she has isn’t quite right.
My thesaurus has a place of honor with the other critical reference books that sit on my desk and I will always treasure it.
Here are the reasons I think a thesaurus is so valuable:
1) Finding unique terms for a familiar concept. I write fantasy stories and fairy tale adaptations and the challenge to say something new starts with the terms I use. “Witch” is loaded with pre-conceived meanings. The connotations that go with it may fit my character and her story but they may not. When they don’t, I dig out my thesaurus and search for some other magical term that might do the job. Sorceress? Enchantress? Hag? I can count on my thesaurus to suggest words related to “witch” that have different meanings. A word I find might even inspire entirely new ideas about my character or story.
2) The lists. Kinds of ships, types of trees, gemstones, colors, flowers, mammals. I adore the lists. I mine them for ideas as I name my characters, towns, harbors, ships, and kingdoms. They keep my story settings dazzling.
3) To uncover connections. Sometimes opening the thesaurus to get help with a particular word can make me aware of meanings I hadn’t considered before. I learn by accident something interesting about where the word I am pursuing fits into the big picture of language. My world expands.
4) It’s a great excuse to open my dictionary. Sensitive to the accusation that thesaurus users are imprecise, I will look up any words I am not sure of and learn more about their multiple meanings and cultural origins. Just like the thesaurus, the dictionary is a word playground, a place a writer loves to be. How lovely that they play well together, too.
Are you a thesaurus fan? Do you have a treasured tool that others consider out-of-date, ineffective, or obsolete? Feel free to share your love here; I promise not to laugh.