A notice just appeared on Twitter of the publication of the expanded second edition of The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words, by Peter E. Meltzer. It’s the first edition I ever heard of.
To give credit where credit is due, it looks like quite an improvement over regular thesauruses (by the way, can you tell me why this word sounds as if it refers to a large extinct reptile? is there any etymological — or evolutionary — relationship? and what would a thesaurus look like roaming alongside a stegosaurus?). It gives much clearer guidance for finding the synonym with just the fine shading of meaning you’re after, and it will lead the browser to many new, delectable, and useful words, from deep within English and from outside it, such as bashi-bazouk (a disorderly, undisciplined person, from the irregular troops of the Ottoman Empire). I would have this book on my reference shelf.
That said, I want its opposite even more: Common Alternatives to Sophisticated Words. As an editor, I’m forever translating writers’ unnecessary Latinisms back into their Anglo-Saxon equivalents. Counterparts. (That’s actually Latin too, but it sounds Anglo-Saxon for some reason.) Sometimes, of course, a Latinism is just the right word. “Obfuscate,” for example — one of the best examples I know of a word that does what it says, that is almost onomatopoetic in its self-reflexiveness. It’s a veritable octopus of a word. cloaking itself in ink. But more often, writers obfuscate unnecessarily by using Latinisms because they think it makes them sound . . . like sophisticated thinkers instead of common storytellers. Latinisms have a marvelous precision — they are verbal instruments, calipers, compasses, astrolabes — and they can sound grand or sensuous, like a resplendent ceremony or a Latin lover’s mellifluous murmur gliding into your ear; but they can also sound pompous, fusty, abstract, and bureaucratic, and they usually sound the latter way when they are used for their sound of authority rather than for their sound, or their precise sense.
Everything I need to know I learned freshman year in college, in two basic courses called Hum 6 and Nat Sci 5. (Hum for Humanities.) Hum 6 was a course on how to read, how to use yourself as an instrument, how to watch yourself react and then pinpoint what it was in the text that got that rise out of you, and — if deliberately done — how the writer did it. I don’t remember whether it was the lecturer or our section head, a graduate student, who pointed out the gloriously mixed archaeology of its history embedded in the English language. There was the Anglo-Saxon layer, the church Latin layer, then the Norman French layer — Latinate too, but lightened, aerated like a soufflé, less about fate and law than court and gesture — each with its own very different quality and effects. Whoever it was showed us how conscious Shakespeare was of those different resources and how meta-consciously he sometimes deployed them:
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.
I also cannot remember who it was (Strunk and White?) who drilled into me that as a general rule it was better, more honest, to use short, blunt, Anglo-Saxon words than Latinate ones, the coiling lingo of lawyers. That’s basic, not advanced, advice; the right word is not always an Anglo-Saxon one, and it would be a poor, bare language that did not have any of Latin’s purple and gold. It’s the variation and contrast — the hybrid vigor — that makes English so mighty.
I wish I had kept a list of examples from my editing work of when the use of a Latin word seemed to be putting on an obfuscating mask, or insecure airs. But I haven’t, so I will add examples to this post as I come across them. If you have any favorite pairs of Latin and Anglo-Saxon words with roughly the same meaning, please put them in the comments and talk a bit about the different worlds evoked by each word. Among other things, it strikes me that politics, as discussed here, penetrates even here.