The Problem With Thesauruses – No Clarifier

For 150 years, thesauruses have adhered to the same basic concept. They present a word, standing alone -the “base word”-and then present a number of possible synonyms for that base word. The problem however is that there are so many wonderful words in the English language that simply do not easily lend themselves to a one base word. What is needed is a way to supplement the base word in the form of a “clarifier”.

The absence of this clarifier is one of the primary limitations of even the most compendious standard thesauruses. There are many different occasions on which a Clarifier is necessary, and each of them demonstrates the shortcoming of ordinary thesauruses.

One example is the use of a Clarifier to provide more exact definitions or to show nuance in words. Consider the following examples. “Aestivate” is a synonym for “laze,” but one would not “aestivate” by lying in the snow because it means to laze about in the summer. Therefore, saying that “aestivate” is a synonym for laze is a recipe for trouble. Instead, with a Clarifier, one could say the following:

laze (around during the summer) v.i.: aestivate. Above all, my children aestivate. From May to September their life is a languorous stroll from pool to hammock to beach to barbecue.

Next, most thesauruses use the word “fecund” as a synonym for “prolific.” While this is not necessarily inaccurate, it does not reflect that the closest synonym for “fecund” is “fertile.” Thus, while a person who has given birth to many offspring may be fecund, it would certainly raise an eyebrow to say that Babe Ruth was a “fecund” home run hitter.

prolific (esp. as in fertile) adj.: fecund. The manatee population continues to grow despite the few that are killed in boating accidents, just as our deer populations continue to thrive despite the deer that are struck on the highways. Manatees are not particularly fecund animals, but they have no natural predators.

Virtually every thesaurus will include the verb “keen” as a synonym for “cry,” without elaboration. If one is not familiar with the word, one may reasonably conclude that a baby who is crying is “keening,” but such use of the word would be inaccurate:

cry (in lament for the dead) v.i.: keen. When word spread through the convent, recalls one nun, “Everybody rushed to the Mother Teresa’s room. They were all around her, wailing and hugging the Mother’s body.” The sisters’ keening was heard by the communists, whose party headquarters are next door, and they tipped off journalists that Teresa had died.

To have a “sinecure,” one must be employed or hold office, but attempting to make that word a synonym for “occupation” or “officeholder” will quickly lead to trouble in most cases. Thus, it is impossible to list “sinecure” as a correct synonym for any single word in a conventional thesaurus. However, with a Clarifier, the problem is easy to solve:

occupation (requiring little work but paying an income) n.: sinecure. [After] nearly ten years in government service, where everything is geared to the lowest common denominator, I find it refreshing to have work that rewards initiative and effort. Certainly I would be happy to have a sinecure again, but I am no longer brokenhearted that I left one.

The verb “peculate” is sometimes listed as a synonym for “steal,” yet one would not accuse a child of “peculating” from the cookie jar.

steal (as in embezzle) v.t., v.i.: peculate. The Mazda Miata gets passers-by smiling and talking. Other conspicuous cars are costly and imposing and draw hate waves, as they are intended to. Decent householders glare, knowing you couldn’t own the thing unless you were a drug dealer or a peculating [bureaucrat].

Finally, consider just the word “woman”. For synonyms, most thesauruses give us “lady,” dame, matron, gentlewoman, maid, spinster, debutante, nymph, virgin, and girl. While it is unlikely that a user would misuse any of these synonyms, since they are all simple, the lack of a Clarifier again points out one of the flaws of the conventional thesaurus, namely that virtually all of these synonyms have very different meanings, and yet they are all equated to “woman.” However, consider how much more precise one can be with a Clarifier.

Five good women to be:

woman (who is beautiful and alluring) n.: houri

woman (who is slender and graceful) n.: sylph

woman (who is strong and courageous) n.: virago

woman (of a… who is stately and regal, esp. tending toward voluptuous) adj.: Junoesque

woman (who is charming and seductive) n.: Circe

Five bad women to be:

woman (who is coarse and abusive) n.: fishwife

woman (regarded as ugly, repulsive, or terrifying) n.: gorgon

woman (regarded as vicious and scolding) n.: harridan

woman (who is scheming and evil) n.: jezebel

woman (frenzied or raging… ) n.: maenad

These examples-and there are thousands of others-show how the Clarifier is used to provide more precise synonyms for base words and to show nuance in a way that conventional thesauruses do not.

Peter E. Meltzer is a practicing attorney, law professor, and author of The Thinker’s Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words, an unique thesaurus that offers interesting, original synonyms along with contextual examples.

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