The Compulsive Copyeditor

May 3, 2010

A Thesaurus We Need

Filed under: history of English,vocabulary — amba12 @ 11:10 pm

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.

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12 Comments »

  1. Thesaurus

    Comment by reader_iam — May 3, 2010 @ 11:25 pm | Reply

  2. Aha! So it is convergent evolution. The thesaurus is a “false friend” to the stegosaurus.

    Comment by amba12 — May 3, 2010 @ 11:32 pm | Reply

  3. George Orwell’s famous essay Politics And The English Language” makes a similar point.

    I’ve always been amused at how many medical and body function word pairs have identical meanings but the Latinate one is considered more proper in polite company:
    Shit/excrement
    fuck/copulate
    sweat/perspire
    stink/odor
    fart/flatulate

    And then there’s the Anglo Saxon animal/latinate food

    cow/beef
    swine/pork
    sheep/mutton

    Comment by El Pollo Real — May 3, 2010 @ 11:40 pm | Reply

  4. retry that Orwell link.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — May 3, 2010 @ 11:46 pm | Reply

  5. the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. I love that! It’s as if attending to precision of language keeps us honest.

    Comment by amba12 — May 3, 2010 @ 11:50 pm | Reply

  6. Separately speaking, I’ve been using the “Latina Christiana” system to introduce Latin to my son. Due to the circumstances of the last year, we haven’t gotten as far in learning Latin, per se, as originally planned. However, as part of originally researching approaches to Latin, more than two years ago, I made a note to consider investing in the “Book of Roots” supporting and extending curriculum when the time came. A year ago, when the time came to order material for this year, I ordered that supplementary material along with the core material, basically on autopilot, truth be told. It has proven to be a huge boon! And if we have not gotten where I thought we might get in terms of Latin, as I already stated we have not, I’ve been blessed and thrilled to watch the clicks and snaps in my son with regard to language and words and how and why certain sets of language use converge (and some of the reason why they don’t, in other ways, though that’s an even more subtle thing). In his case, this particular subject area has made things more obvious rather than more arcane, for whatever reasons, to him.

    (Interestingly, it’s made things LESS obvious for me. But that’s a different story, a tangent still awaiting a ripening.)

    Comment by reader_iam — May 3, 2010 @ 11:51 pm | Reply

  7. I see that I skipped an explicit statement in my previous comment. The unexpected huge boon = the “Book of Roots” supplementary material.

    Comment by reader_iam — May 3, 2010 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

  8. Just that title, the Book of Roots, has me very intrigued. Can I find it by Googling?

    Comment by amba12 — May 4, 2010 @ 1:14 am | Reply

  9. 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.

    Whoever it was, we have a lot to thank them for, and of course it’s a mixed bag of goods: both “State it plainly, damn it!” and also “Fuck you, you bloody cunt”.

    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.

    Hmmm. Interesting, and how easily reversed. More interesting, the converse relationship. Most interesting, the potential for the concept of “infinite loop” to apply.

    It’s the variation and contrast — the hybrid vigor — that makes English so mighty.

    And why that very quality of variation and contrast–the hybrid vigor, as it’s put here–is so much under siege.

    “Pick a side, baby, even in your language! :) ”

    ; )

    Comment by reader_iam — May 4, 2010 @ 1:28 am | Reply

  10. Just that title, the Book of Roots, has me very intrigued. Can I find it by Googling?

    I’m sorry, Annie. I missed that comment of yours until now. I ordered that material through Amazon, as I did “Latina Christiana” and some other, dovetailing resources in related subjects (having to do with the history & etc. of Greece and Rome). It’s not designed as a general reference book, and that is not its function (though it’s clear, plain and accessible in its approach). It’s definitely targeted toward the teaching of material to students as an enrichment to a core study. It does have *a lot* to offer as a standalone. However, its target audience is beginning learners of Latin (or something akin to that). If I recall correctly, you don’t fall into that category. : )

    Comment by reader_iam — May 4, 2010 @ 2:00 am | Reply

  11. That’s wonderful that you’re starting your son out so young with languages. I’m trying to convince my son (going into 7th grade) to take Spanish.

    Comment by El Pollo Real — May 4, 2010 @ 1:19 pm | Reply

  12. […] – my Anglo-Saxon alternative, in turn inspired by Jason (the […]

    Pingback by Coining a Word (Well, Trying To) « The Compulsive Copyeditor — July 9, 2010 @ 6:13 pm | Reply


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