Am I alone in thinking that I’ve failed if I reach for the thesaurus? Why do I feel that? It’s not cheating to use a tool in most tasks. A reference work that groups similar words together so you can pick the best one is surely a fantastic assistant for any copywriter.
However, I rarely use it for work. This is probably due to a mixture of professional pride, genuinely not needing it, and the knowledge that if I pick up my copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, I will spend the next two nerdy hours squealing with delight over the loveliness of words. Not productive.
To save time, occasionally I click on Mr Gates’ quick fix version. This is mainly when I run out of adjectives (see Making a Meal of Adjectives. Catalogue copy consumes more adjectives than my car does petrol). It’s OK, it does the job – but it’s not a thing of beauty like a proper, real thesaurus.
The modern thesaurus first hit the shelves in the mid nineteenth-century, compiled by Peter Mark Roget. I’ve always used a Roget – it’s a kind of geeky brand loyalty I suppose. Other editions are available etc, but he started it, so thesaurus-wise, he’s the daddy.
What sort of person compiles lengthy lists of synonyms and antonyms, and groups them thematically? Bless Wikipedia. I learned that the poor chap came from a family cursed with untimely deaths, and that Roget himself struggled with depression, using his list-writing from childhood to help him cope with the world (I was pleased to read that he lived far longer than most of his relatives, dying at ninety, and that his son carried on his work. He also designed a pocket chessboard). It’s odd to think that one man’s coping mechanism has resulted in one of the key language reference works – and it probably makes me appreciate it more.
And anyway, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of assistance every now and then. There are a lot of words in the English language, and it’s nigh on impossible to call the right one to mind every time. So dust off the thesaurus and use it: it is the perfect reference book to inspire and guide. Unless you’re Susie Dent. She probably doesn’t need a thesaurus.