An Ode to My Thesaurus

Truly an essential, indispensable, necessitous volume

illustration of long arms reaching up to pull a very thick book off a crowded shelf, on blue background
Tim Lahan

They’ve got you all wrong. They think you’re a trick, a cheat sheet for fancy words, a way of counterfeiting cleverness. (And Americans are fatally awed by cleverness. This acclaimed young author/tweeter/whatever is always “whip smart.” That drunk guy is always shouting “Think you’re smarter than me? HUH?”)

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Or they’ll treat you as a mere lexical resource. A vocabulary expander. A ThighMaster for out-of-condition prose. I mean, we’ve all done it. Reached for you, that is, when the words arriving in our forebrain, from the charred and private little glossary that we keep in our backbrain, seem … insufficient. Don’t say “in a shitty mood.” Say “captious.”

But that’s not how, or when, to use you. That’s not who you are. You, my friend, are a vision. You’re a shamanic trip into the essence of words: a shimmering, unfolding, occasionally scarifying million-petaled experience, a miraculous nest of emergent relationships, and the writer who abuses your nature, who exploits your abundance, will pay. He will pick the wrong word, and he won’t sound clever at all. He’ll sound like an ass. He’ll sound like a silly Billy, a twerp, a stooge.

A thesaurus—here it comes—is for increasing one’s aliveness to words. Nothing more and nothing less. By going into the buzzing and jostling hive of words around a word, we get a purer sense of the word itself: its coloration, its interior, its traces of meaning. I looked up the verb excite just now and found the word in its affective (touch, move) and mechanical (electrify, galvanize) aspects. Which gets at who we are, as humans, doesn’t it? Feelings and circuitry.

Lewis Carroll made up chortle, and you absorbed it, placing it snugly between chuckle (benign and big-bellied) and cackle (witchy and weird). Ken Dodd, the great English comedian, made up tattifilarious. (“Now,” he told an interviewer as an old man, “now is reality. And it’s wonderful. By Jove, it’s tattifilarious!”) You have not, as yet, absorbed that. I’d float it in there somewhere between bittersweet and custard-pie.

As for you, blessed Mr. Roget, they say you had OCD. Of course you did. You were hooked, hung up, haunted by the hidden life of words: their selves, their stories, as told by the words they are closest to. You gave us a great gift. May you rest eternally among your synonyms.

This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition.