Friday, January 20

Is There Another Word for Thesaurus?

If you look up the definition of thesaurus, you'll find that it's a book of synonyms, and if you look up the definition of synonym, you'll find that it's "a word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word in a language." Most often, a synonym will fit under the nearly the same category, as it's a rare thing when two words have exactly the same meaning.

One of my favorite lists of synonyms in any thesaurus is the list given for the noun fight. It makes sense that there would be so many fun ones, since there are so many fun ways of disagreeing. Here are a few:
  • skirmish
  • struggle
  • melee
  • duel
  • tussle
  • scuffle
  • scrimmage
  • fracas
  • brouhaha
  • kerfuffle
  • dogfight
  • pitched battle
  • battle royal
  • feud
  • wrangling
  • set-to
  • tussle
  • squabble
  • brawl
  • scrap
  • spat
  • tiff
  • joust
  • tilt
That isn't a complete list, but most of the ones that aren't boring are there.

And speaking of boring, let's say the combatants in the kerfuffle agree to compromise. Things aren't nearly so exciting, situation-wise or synonym-wise:
  • mutual concession
  • accomodation
  • agreement
  • settlement
  • truce
  • compact
  • happy medium
Okay, the last one's not quite so boring as the rest, but it doesn't hold a candle to battle royal, does it?

One way to use a thesaurus is to keep text from sounding repetitive. If someone doesn't want to use the same word over and over, they can look up synonyms to use instead. But you can usually smell the thesaurus when someone's done that. There's another, better way to use your treasury of synonyms.

Lord Chesterfield pointed out that there is always "some little difference, some distinction, between all those words that are vulgarly called synonymous--one hath always more energy, extent, or delicacy than another." It's that synonyms are not the same, but nearly the same, that makes a thesaurus is so useful. The very best way to use it is to find the one synonym that's different from the others in precisely the way needed to express perfectly what you want to say. Was the fight a pitched battle or a skirmish? It's the nuances of meaning that you see when all the synonyms are lined up together that help you call a spade a spade, and not a shovel.

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