Grammar Lesson of the Day: Bury the Thesaurus
Sometimes my college freshmen tell me that they use a thesaurus to find synonyms, so that they don’t have to use the same word all the time. Using the same word, they’ve been told, is repetitive, and repetition is bad. Well, that’s complete nonsense. I’ll turn to repetition in later lessons. For now, I imagine Jesus saying:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Those who mourn are going to be happy too, because they will be comforted.
The inheritance of the earth will belong to the meek, and that will be most fortunate for them.
People who hunger for righteousness will experience a favorable state of affairs …
Anyway, Thesaurus polytropus is a wily old dinosaur. He doesn’t attack head on. He baits his prey by leaving in open view the carcasses of words, and just when you think you’re going to enjoy an easy meal – no hunting, no skinning – pounce! He’s got you by the throat.
The thing is, very few words are really synonymous with one another. This makes English especially baffling for non-native speakers. English is phenomenally rich in words, from the Germanic foundations, from the Viking variants, from the French by way of the Norman Conquest; words borrowed or invented from Latin and Greek from the Renaissance to this day; we even borrow ways of making new words. No language has as many words as English does. No language is even close.
So we use words that are sort-of-synonymous, but assign them to special areas of meaning, with differences in nuance. Look at a few “synonyms” for big: large, vast, massive, enormous, great, gargantuan. Put them in sentences:
Elsie is a big woman on the committee.
The distance between Earth and its moon is vast.
The elephant’s shoulders are massive, weighing hundreds of pounds.
Mr. Calhoun wears large pants.
The football player put away a gargantuan supper.
It’s a great deal.
Now change them around:
Elsie is a large woman on the committee.
The distance between Earth and its moon is massive.
The elephant’s shoulders are vast, weighing hundreds of pounds.
Mr. Calhoun wears gargantuan pants.
The football player put away a great supper.
It’s a big deal.
Roget is pretty good at showing the reader the various shades of meaning as we move from one word to another, or their various fields for use. But it still won’t help you much, unless you have already encountered the words in their contexts. The thesaurus, then, helps you to remember what you already know, or helps you to understand more precisely what you already have a fair notion of. Think of our words for stubborn: tenacious, intransigent, steadfast, implacable, single-minded, mulish. Odysseus, gripping the rock as the waves battered him, was tenacious: he had a hold on something and he would not let go. Tenacity is generally a virtue. The same Odysseus once went to the tent of Achilles to persuade that sulker to rejoin the battle, but Achilles, nursing his grudge against Agamemnon, was intransigent: you could not move him out of the way. Intransigence is generally a vice.
The British captured Nathan Hale and tried to shame him into a confession of guilt, but the lad’s loyalty was not to be shaken: Hale was steadfast. Steadfastness is a great virtue indeed. Juno hated the Trojans because Paris, taking Aphrodite’s bribe rather than hers, did not award her the golden apple meant “for the fairest.” She pursued Aeneas for ten years; Hell hath no fury, and all that. Juno was implacable, impossible to please. William Wilberforce fought against slavery with all the courage of a man sent on a mission by God; he was single-minded, as was John Brown; the adjective may be applied to heroes, to men of dubious character, and to villains.
And then there are people whom you should never ask to do anything, because they will invariably decide, for spite or out of sheer brute stupidity, not to do it. They are mulish.