When I visit elementary classrooms, I frequently see a list, posted on the wall, of synonyms gleaned from a thesaurus for overused words like said. This is an admirable attempt on the part of teachers to add some freshness to student writing–though it can be overdone. (Let’s face it, sometimes said is the right word for the job.)
I’m asked a lot if I use a thesaurus to vary my vocabulary. I don’t. Aside from the fact that it seems like cheating, it also often produces an uninteresting word, or worse, one whose meaning is at best a close cousin to the one you need. As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between lightning, and lightning bug.” The thesaurus often gives us lightning bugs when what we need is a paralyzing electric shock.
Instead of a thesaurus, I have taped to my laptop a list of words that I encounter when reading but that aren’t part of my active vocabulary. (As you probably know, our active vocabulary–the words we employ ourselves–is a fraction of our passive vocabulary.) The hope is that having the words in front of me will encourage those words to slide from passive to active vocabulary. Currently on my list: Svengali, discomfit, peroration, kewpie doll, bravura, captious, immanent, strangulated, sere, canard, valence, eschew, baleful, languor, coruscate, cynosure, and otiose.
Recently I was reading one of my favorite authors–the comic master P. G. Wodehouse (of Jeeves and Wooster fame)–and I started jotting down the words he used instead of walk. Jeeves the butler never walked into a room: he streamed, shimmered, floated, trickled, flowed, sifted, slid and trickled. Other, less reserved, characters surged round, rocketed, and bounded.
Would Wodehouse have found any of those words in a thesaurus under “walk?” Your Honor, I rest my case.
So, have I convinced you to eschew the thesaurus?
PS I’m curious to know what others have taped to their computers for inspiration? And teachers: what techniques do you use to broaden your students’ vocabulary?