Sunday, June 17, 2012

Roget's Super Thesaurus: an appreciation

I'm sure any of you born before the time when legwarmers, synthesizers, and drum machines were considered cool can remember getting record club offers in the mail. In exchange for buying one unit at the grossly inflated market rate, one would receive several units "free" (except for the cost of postage and handling). 

The twenty-something wide-eyed something-for-nothing consumer in me pounced on these deals - as the greasy ad-writers had hoped when they massaged their copy - while the inner skeptic stood off to the side saying, "Now, you have to remember to sign and send that form back every month or they'll bill you for something you don't want."

Other than important bills, my mail - unless it's from a friend or family member - tends to get shunted aside, and the first time I signed up for a record deal I failed to mail my first return slip back and got this

My initial instinct was some combination of revulsion and amusement, my second instinct was to take the trespassing piece of mail to the post office and send it back with a letter ("How dare you..."), but the much more powerful instinct was to fling the offending object aside and lose it in the morass of books newspapers magazines guitar transcriptions and cassette tapes (this was 1990) that dominated my landscape.

After a few months of getting nastygrams from the record company, I paid up, mailed back whatever other albums of the month they had inflicted on me with a letter tying everything up, and soon thereafter chose all the "free" CDs I was due and called it a day. And after gathering dust in my apartment for many, many months, the Pat Benatar's "Best Shots"was given to a friend of mine who was genuinely glad to have it.


Several years passed before I signed up for another club, a five-for-the-price-of-one book club deal. As ever, I had a rush of excitement when I saw the terms on the outside of the solicitation envelope, but this time I was older and wiser and the inner skeptic stood even taller, arms crossed, eyebrow crooked, stare fixed on me over hornrimmed glasses.

So I did it right. I paid for a book I wanted not many months in, got four "free," and closed the account. Among those five was one of the best book purchases I've ever made.  

I can be very finicky about word choice; I don’t feel right using a general word (“walk”) when a precise word (“stroll,” “amble”) is available. 

Also – particularly in creative writing – I prefer not to repeat words any more than is necessary, both because readers deserve variety and because I feel frequent repetition is the mark of an inexperienced (or lazy) writer.

For these reasons, I was thrilled when I received Roget’s Super Thesaurus in the mail. Too often, when I had only a standard issue thesaurus, I couldn’t find the word I needed. This still happens sometimes with the Super Thesaurus, but it happens a lot less often because there are more synonyms for each word than are available in a plain old thesaurus. If you don’t find what you’re looking for in the list of synonyms for a word, you can always look up any of those synonyms, to see if that will turn up an answer.

As one example, frequently in fiction one describes a character looking at something or someone. There are 19 different words/phrases in the Super Thesaurus to substitute for “look,” the verb, and if you're not 100% sure about any of those, you can reference any of the 19 that have individual listings ("glimpse," "glance," "behold") and check their synonyms for a better fit. Given time and patience, you can cast a wider net than would be the case with a plain thesaurus.

The Super Thesaurus is simple and easy to use. Entries are in alphabetical order, and there are no other sections in the book to wade through in your search for the perfect word. The format is basically a two-page introduction and the entries, in alphabetical order, period.

Also, in addition to a wall of synonyms, the Super Thesaurus includes many antonyms and a reverse dictionary. If you look “doctor” up, there are 15 or so synonyms and a long list of specific types of doctors, in alphabetical order. So “animals” are listed, then “veterinarian,” “heart” is listed, then “cardiologist,” and so on.

In short, Roget’s Super Thesaurus is a gift to every wordsmith, actual and aspiring.

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