Friday, May 9, 2008

Ode to a Thesaurus

Today I thought I'd participate in the Booking Through Thursday meme about books. Each Thursday this site posts a question about books and reading; participants copy the question to their blogs, answer it, then link back. It's a lot of fun--check it out!

This week's question is:

Writing guides, grammar books, punctuation how-tos . . . do you read them? Not read them? How many writing books, grammar books, dictionaries–if any–do you have in your library?


I could not write without my thesaurus. Seriously.

My thirty-year old hardback copy of Roget's Thesaurus sits within arm's reach on my desk every time I write. A talisman, perhaps, or simply a visual reminder that I have written before and can write again. It functions not as a static repository of flowery, obscure synonyms with which to prettify my prose, but as a catalyst to my imagination and sieve for my expression. Often times as I'm writing, I'll have an idea of what I want to say, but haven't completely formulated my thoughts. I'll choose a word from the sentence I envision, look it up in the thesaurus, and begin reading the entries for it. Either a word will jump out at me and my thoughts will crystallize around it, or else I will realize that the word I first envisioned really doesn't capture what I want to say. Then the thesaurus offers the invaluable service of providing me with related words that I can explore. I'm very picky about the words I use; they must not only be precise in meaning, but contribute to the "sound" and flow of the sentence. I'll rewrite sentences over and over until sound and meaning mesh. If for some reason I must write without my thesaurus, it's a much more difficult and time-consuming process.

I've had the same hardback copy of Roget's International Thesaurus for decades now. The spine is cracked, some of the pages loose; the little stickers with the entry numbers have fallen off most of the tabs. I've tried to use a newer copy, but it's just not the same. Since the thesaurus is an idea generator for me, I can't use the newer, alphabetically organized ones. I love how in the original thesaurus words are group according to ideas and there's a progression to the order of entries in the book. And forget the online versions--they are much too spare for what I need them to do.

My favorite page in the thesaurus is the short biography of its British compiler, Peter Mark Roget (1799-1869). Did you know Roget was actually a medical doctor? He graduated from medical school at the age of nineteen and made a name for himself researching such subjects as pulmonary consumption and the effects of laughing gas. He established a charity clinic in London in 1810 and contributed his services there free for eighteen years. Roget became a Fellow of the Royal Society and served as its secretary for over twenty years. He lectured widely on medical subjects, but his interests were not limited to medicine. According to this biography, he devised a slide rule and worked on perfecting a calculating machine; he wrote articles for the Encyclopedia Britannica; he designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard; in 1828 he headed a commission to study the water supply of London and wrote the first paper of its kind advocating pollution control.

In 1848 began preparing his thesaurus for publication. He'd begun cataloguing and organizing words according to their meanings in 1805; the first printed edition of his catalog appeared in 1852. He titled it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. That's exactly what I use it for and thank this remarkable man for his efforts.

A hardbound copy of Webster's New World Dictionary and a thick Harrap's French and English Dictionary keep my old thesaurus company on my writing desk. As for writing books, I have a good number, some of which I can recommend, but that's a subject for another post. Anyway, think of the remarkable Mr. Roget next time you open your thesaurus.

(I wonder how many different ways there are to say "geek"? There's got to be one there that describes me!)


Anonymous said...

You've always had amazing vocab, now I know why! Speaking of amazing, it sounds like Mr.Roget must have led quite a life, amazing enough to write about? Ever consider writing with your lead being a male character?? Just a thought :)
Always Renee

elena maria vidal said...

I could not live without my thesaurus. Great post!

Julianne Douglas said...

Renee, maybe I'll add ol' Peter Mark to my List of Future Novel Subjects.

As for writing male leads, Gabriel was sort of a co-lead with Jollande in TMOS. I haven't quite narrowed down the list of lead characters for FB, and there are some males in the running!

Julianne Douglas said...

Thanks, EM! The cover of mine finally separated from the pages today. :( But at least the pages haven't started coming apart. I'll have to scour the next library book sale to see if I can find an intact copy of this version.

Anonymous said...

True about Gabriel!! It would open a new cover debate too. And Peter Mark? Jog my memeory...
always, Renee

Julianne Douglas said...

Peter Mark is Roget's given name.

I don't know if I could pull off an entire book from a male perspective.