Wednesday, January 09, 2002

I am doomed. I am wide awake with no hope of falling asleep soon, and I have to get up at 5:00 tomorrow morning to go to work.

So, to continue today's theme of words, I post a link to "Roget and his Brilliant, Unrivaled, Malign, and Detestable Thesaurus" by Simon Winchester, which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly May 2001 issue. Winchester, who wrote The Professor and the Madman (which I've not read yet) about the Oxford English Dictionary, excoriates Roget's Thesaurus for the role it has played in the degradation of writing and of the use of the English language in general. "It should be roundly condemned as a crucial part of the engine work that has transported us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity." (p. 55)

Why is this so? Winchester explains that
[b]y eschewing definitions altogether, and thus suggesting no choices, [Roget's Thesaurus] fostered poor writing. It offered facile answers to complex linguistic questions. It appealed to a growing desire for snap solutions to tricky verbal situations. It enabled students to appear learned without ever helping to make them so. It encouraged a malaprop society. It made for literary window dressing. It was meretricious.¹ (p. 74)
Winchester writes that, instead, words should come
from within—from memory, experience, conversation, reading, imperfectly recalled strands of knowledge. (p. 75)
¹meretricious 1: of or relating to a prostitute 2 a: tawdrily and falsely attractive b: based on pretense or insincerity: specious. Syn: see Gaudy. (From Webster's.)

I had never owned a thesaurus, not out of any superior intellectual conviction, but because I just never had one. Thus, earlier this year, I thought it was about time I purchased one. I ordered Roget's International Thesaurus through, and, shortly after it arrived, The Atlantic Monthly arrived with Winchester's essay. I promptly returned the thesaurus, citing the essay as my reason for return.

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