“Occasionally one makes use of [Roget’s Thesaurus],” wrote Simon Winchester back in 2001. “But one never, never relies on it to help with the making of good writing. It may be used once in a while, to jog the memory, to unstall a synaptic moment. But it should never be trawled through or mined; its offerings should never be taken and transfused into a paragraph as relief for emptiness of thought.”
While B. D. McClay admits that a thesaurus can, indeed, be “a trap for the unwary,” she believes there’s a far worse problem: people unwilling to explore our glorious language for fear of appearing foolish or pretentious. “[T]hey either stay within the bounds of a safe vocabulary,” she writes, “or (if they are a certain business-managerial type) cope by inventing hideous new words. Fear of the thesaurus has unleashed horrors a Chthonic god could only dream of, like synergy and incentivize.”
I think I’m in love.
My own well-worn copy of Roget sits on a nearby shelf – just within arm’s reach – between Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable and The Chicago Manual of Style. I’m obviously not as smart as Mr. Winchester (nor as good a writer), because I honestly cannot imagine doing what I do without it.
And I’m totally fine with that.