Every teacher of composition probably has a few horror stories along these lines. Unlike Bush with his print thesaurus, students these days would more likely consult one online or directly built into their computer’s operating system. The simplicity of using an electronic thesaurus is a double-edged sword, tempting students into quick substitutions without thinking carefully about nuances of word usage. In a critique of thesauruses (and Roget in particular) published in The Atlantic in 2001, Simon Winchester gave the example of a student who “attempted to improve the phrase ‘his earthly fingers’ by changing it to ‘his chthonic digits.’” Elsewhere he calls the thesaurus “a calculator for the lexically lazy: used too often, relied on at all, it will cause the most valuable part of the brain to atrophy, the core of human expression to wither.”
Winchester is quite right to be concerned about the ease of search-and-replace synonymy in the age of the word processor. Unthinking substitutions along the lines of the young Mr. Bush’s “lacerates” can now be multiplied many times over, with lightning speed. Fans of the television show Friends may recall the episode in which the dim-witted Joey Tribbiani discovers the built-in thesaurus in his word-processing program and tries to spruce up a letter of recommendation for his friends’ adoption agency. He thesaurusizes every word, so that the sentence “They are warm, nice people with big hearts” turns into “They are humid, prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.”
That bit of sitcom silliness has actually turned into a grim reality, now that online content farms use so-called spinning software to modify a source text by automatically swapping out words with ostensible synonyms. (The goal is to create new textual fodder that can be used on websites without search engines like Google suspecting that the content has been duplicated from elsewhere.) I recently came across a particularly ham-handed example on a news aggregator which lifted an article from the Star-Ledger about a looming fight between two congressional candidates. The original said that “the Democratic showdown will be bloody and fairly evenly matched considering the county machinery behind each candidate.” In the “spun” version, the showdown “will be full of blood and sincerely uniformly suited deliberation the county equipment at the back any candidate.” Sadly, this sort of thesaurus-driven gobbledygook can be found in abundance online, as if Joey and his full-sized aortic pump had taken over the Internet.
If automatic search and replace represents the dark side of synonymy in the digital age, there are plenty of causes for optimism in more sophisticated approaches to contemporary thesaurus making. A thesaurus, like any reference tool, requires active participation from its readers to unlock its potential utility. But one that is well-designed, whether print or digital, also makes that participation enjoyable and enlightening, encouraging the user to do more than take in a quick drive-by of synonyms. In compiling the first English thesaurus, Roget’s hope was that his readers would immerse themselves in a realm of concepts and their linguistic associations. One hundred and sixty years later, there are many novel ways that a thesaurus can provide that kind of immersion in the world of words.
Twenty-first-century reference works seem to be moving inexorably toward an online-only existence, but for the time being we can appreciate the distinct pleasures of both print and electronic creations. The print thesaurus affords a more leisurely stroll through its pages, with possibilities ripe for serendipitous discovery. The electronic versions, on the other hand, may appeal to our “give me a word now” impulse for instant gratification. But they can also stimulate the exploration of language by means of free-flowing user interfaces, with hyperlinks or other navigational tools carrying the user from word to word and from meaning to meaning.
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