Thesaurus abuse: or a gross misappropriation of lexicon

Monday, February 18, 2019
by Trenton Joseph McNulty

A thesaurus groups together words that are similar in meaning. It exists for those tip-of-the-tongue moments when the right word seems just out of reach: “Gah! I need another word for something that’s pretentious … to be pretentious, to put on airs … Ah! An affectation!”

Some people, however, wield their thesaurus like a blunt object—barrelling through walls and smacking their readers over the head with increasingly verbose, effusive, and sesquipedalian language. They connivingly construct their verbiage unintelligibly, utilizing befuddling linguistic arrangements (of which they themselves possess only minute comprehension) with the intention of appearing gradations more erudite than they actually are.

I’m not saying you do this, dear reader. But I did. Oh, God, I did.

a scary man breaking through a door with an axe to attack a cartoon thesaurus

All work and no play makes Trenton a dull boy.

Humble beginnings / an obsequious genesis

In the tenth grade, my sweet and elderly English teacher made me a proposition: for my final essay, I could venture off the approved book-list. “Write an essay on any book you want,” she said. “Just make sure it’s great.”

No Shakespeare. No Austen. No Harper Lee. No more annoying, down-to-earth literature...

So I rushed home. For the first time in my teenage life, I bolted straight past the Xbox and busted out my clunky 2012 laptop. I wanted to write a proper essay. Be a proper English student. Show her and everyone else what I’m made of—what I can do when I take something seriously.

And then I wrote this:

'Contact' by Carl Sagan chronicles the life journey of scientist Ellie Arroway, and her detection of an innately complex message from the stars. Despite logical claims of higher civilizations, she and her colleagues face stark enmity from those who assert it's supposed ungodly nature ... This unrelenting lack of skepticism results in an obtuse reliance on the existence of a deity – severely hindering the thought of a civilization unrestricted from the shackles of dated, pious dogma.

As much as this essay seems to be an argument against religion, by writing it, I played god. I constructed Frankenstein sentences, stitching together only the ‘best’ words—the longest, the most verbose. And, as in the novel, my creation came to life. Only it then killed my fiancé and my best friend and chased me across an arctic tundra. In a manner of speaking.

I can read the passage, but it’s so thick with fancy adjectives I can barely understand it. I’ve alienated the reader and killed any force my argument might’ve had.

Is “stark enmity” really a more powerful phrase than plain old 'hatred'? When’s the last time you heard someone say “pious” or “obtuse” out loud?

The answer: every decision I made was a bad one.

Academic considerations / pedagogical cogitations 

The problem is that I was trying to sound smart. It was my first time taking an essay seriously, and I wanted to make sure it sounded like an essay.

In academic writing, you’re expected to be informal and impartial. At the entrance of The Academy™ hangs a giant sign that screams: “LEAVE YOUR BIASES (AND PERSONALITY) AT THE DOOR. NO ‘I’s ALLOWED.”

This philosophy is changing (slowly), but it’s still engrained in the mind of every university student from here to Hong Kong: “If I’m writing a paper, dissertation, or lab report, it needs to sound fancy.”

Combine this mentality with a desire to impress and a deep-seated insecurity about your own writing ability, and congratulations—you’ve stirred the perfect cocktail for awkward and bloated prose!

I’m not saying you should never use a thesaurus, but don’t skim through your first draft arbitrarily ‘upgrading’ words unless you want to look like me: a snooty doorknob.

Tips and tricks / maxims and machinations

From now on. every time you’re struck with the impulse to bust out your thesaurus (i.e. Google), ask yourself…

1. Do I need to change this word right now?

Each time you pause to look up a different word, you burn valuable time that could be better spent writing. Even worse, it interrupts the flow of ideas from brain-to-page, derailing your train of thought. On a first draft, you want that sucker barrelling through the station.

2. Why do I want to change this word?

If you can’t justify the change, you shouldn’t make it.

Good justifications include: “This is the word I originally had in mind” or “my current word doesn’t fit the context it’s in” (e.g., ‘booger’ doesn’t belong in an essay and ‘infinitesimal’ doesn’t belong in a Twitter post).

Bad justifications include: “It’ll make me look like I actually read the textbook” or “aren’t all academic papers supposed to sound fancy?”  

3. Will my audience understand what I’m saying?

If you don’t even know what a word means, how can you expect your prof to understand it? Your reader might have a PhD, but intelligence does not mean patience. Be clear with your words. Do the work for the reader, so they don’t have to.

4. Is this word used in everyday speech?

If it sounds like something a moustachioed aristocrat might say, give it a hard pass (e.g. ‘Therefore’is okay, but not ‘whence’).

Closing remarks / terminating pronouncements

As an English student who reads far more than he probably should (admittedly mostly Wikipedia articles), my vocabulary is still occasionally ridiculous. But for the most part, as I hope this post shows—I got over it. I tripped over miles of ridiculous synonyms, but in falling to the ground, I got a better look at them. I now understand those fat, pretentious words, and I know how to use them. In retrospect, it was a learning process.

I can’t spare you that difficulty, and I don’t think I should. But maybe my advice will keep you on your feet more often than not. Spare you one or two thesaurus trip-ups.

And isn’t that indubitably prodigious?