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Saturday, 13 April 2013

Beware The Thesaurus.

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English...
The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A little while ago, I came across the following statement, made by a professional journalist reporting in the local media: ‘The crash took place…’
I won’t bore you with the rest of the details. But, as I’m sure you’ll agree, a crash is an accident and accidents ‘happen’, they don’t ‘take place’.  Meetings, concerts, pre-planned events ‘take place’.

This set me thinking about the way in which most writers seek out alternative words and expressions to prevent repetition and dullness and to enliven their work. The bulk of us turn to the thesaurus, whether in book form or online. I use two different versions most of the time: the excellent, short, but useful online program known as WordWeb, which is a free to use application that can be downloaded and associated with your word processor to check for definitions and alternatives for a large number of words. Click here for a link to the download website.

I prefer, however, the much more comprehensive book, The Original Roget’s Thesaurus, in the 1987 edition, prepared by Betty Kirkpatrick. I have alternatives on my shelves: Hartrampf’s Vocabulary Builder, the Oxford Compact Thesaurus, The Slang Thesaurus, The New Nuttall Dictionary of English Synonyms and Antonyms, and A Dictionary of Euphemisms and Other Doubletalk.

The danger with the thesaurus, of course, is rather akin to that posed by the ubiquitous spellchecker on the PC: it depends for its effectiveness on a level of understanding from the user. Spellcheck ‘their’, ‘there’, and ‘they’re’ and all will pass the test with ease. Usage determines the correct spelling. With a thesaurus, it’s essential that the user at least understands what the word actually means.

An example, then.

I suspect the vast majority of readers here will know the word, ‘wanton’. And I guess most would recognise its use as an adjective in the following couple of sentences:

‘She dressed in a manner suggestive of her wanton nature, advertising her readiness to serve any and every man present.’

‘He pulled his partner back to his feet and knocked him down again, before laying into him in wanton violence as the poor wretch lay at his feet.’

Yes, I know; clich├ęd examples but, bear with me: I wanted samples that gave context to the word in question and in both these ‘wanton’ is easily defined by reference to its usage.

If, however, you were to use an unusual word without such contextual clues, it would be very easy to employ a totally unsuitable alternative simply by consulting a thesaurus. I’ll illustrate what I mean. First, lets’ see how the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘wanton’:

Wanton: (SOED) Adj: Of a person – undisciplined, ungoverned, unmanageable, rebellious, jovial, inclined to joking, carefree, petulant, spoilt, self-indulgent, insolent in triumph or prosperity, reckless, merciless (of a boy) childishly cruel or unruly. Of an animal – skittish, refractory, unmanageable, frisky, frolicsome,.
Originally only of a woman – thought, action etc: lustful, sexually promiscuous, flirtatious.
Of colour or music – cheerful, lively
Of an object – moving freely as if alive, unrestrained
Of wealth, clothing, diet, a way of life – luxurious, extravagant,
Of cruelty or violence – unprovoked, reckless, gratuitous
Of speech and imagination – extravagant, impetuous, unrestrained
Fastidious or dainty in appetite, profuse in growth, luxuriant.

I suspect there are more meanings here than most readers expected. Some, of course, are now either rare or generally used only in a literary or poetic sense. Nevertheless, the most common usages of the word are buried amongst many other meanings. So, this is a word for which the dictionary provides a number of different meanings, which would only become apparent by context. Already, we have a recipe for potential confusion.

If we now examine the entries in The Original Roget’s Thesaurus for the same word, used as an adjective, we find the following suggestions under their headings:

changing, mutable, alterable, phased, changeable, shifting, vicissitudinous, varying, variant, variable, nonuniform, kaleidoscopic, iridescent, protean, multiform, quick-change, versatile, skilful, uncertain, unreliable, vacillating, wavering, irresolute, moody, unpredictable, unaccountable, unexpected, never the same, ever-changing, volatile, mercurial, different, wayward, fickle, whimsical, capricious, giddy, dizzy, flighty, wanton, irresponsible, frivolous, light-minded, shifty, inconstant, unfaithful, disloyal, traitorous, tergiversating.

motiveless, purposeless, whimsical, fanciful, fantastic, eccentric, humoursome, temperamental, crotchety, maggoty, freakish, fitful, hysterical, mad, crazy, prankish, mischievous, wanton, wayward, perverse, faddy faddish, particular, fastidious, captious, arbitrary, unreasonable, fretful, moody, contrary, irascible, undisciplined, refractory, wilful, erratic, uncertain, unpredictable, unexpected, volatile, mercurial, skittish, giddy, frivolous, light-minded, inconsistent, inconstant, variable, unstable, irresponsible, unreliable, fickle, feckless, tergiversating, flirtatious, coquettish, playful.

freeborn, enfranchised, heart-whole, fancy-free, unattached, scot-free, acquitted, on the loose, at large, escaped, released, freed, liberated, free as air, free as the wind, free as a bird, footloose, go-as-you-please, ranging, travelling, ranging freely, having full play, licensed, chartered, privileged, permitted, exempt, immune, nonliable, free-speaking, plain-spoken, plain, free-thinking, emancipated, broad, broadminded, latitudinarian, unbiased, unprejudiced, independent, uninfluenced, just, free and easy, all things to all men, sociable, loose, licentious, unbridled, incontinent, wanton, impure, at leisure, out of harness, retired, relaxed, unbuttoned, at home, at ease, leisurely, free of cost, gratis, freebie, on the house, for free, unpaid for, uncharged, unclaimed, going begging, unwanted, free for all, unreserved, vacant, unoccupied, up for grabs, accessible.
ill-considered, ill-conceived, ill-advised, harebrained, foolhardy, wildcat, injudicious, indiscreet, imprudent, unwise, careless, hit-and-miss, slapdash, free-and-easy, accident-prone, negligent, unforeseeing, not-looking, uncircumspect, lemming-like, incautious, unwary, heedless, thoughtless, inconsiderate, uncalculating, inattentive, light, frivolous, airy, breezy, flippant, giddy, devil-may-care, harum-scarum, slaphappy, trigger-happy, light-minded, irresponsible, reckless, regardless, couldn’t-care-less, don’t-care, damning the consequences, lunatic, wanton, wild, cavalier, bold, daring, temerarious, audacious, overdaring, overbold, madcap, daredevil, do-or-die, neck or nothing, breakneck, suicidal, overambitious, over the top, oversanguine, oversure, overconfident, hoping, overweening, presumptuous, arrogant, insolent, precipitate, gadarene, headlong, hell-bent, desperate, hasty, unchecked, headstrong, wilful, untaught by experience, ignorant, impulsive, impatient, hot-bloodied, fire-eating, furious, excitable, danger-loving, unfearing, venturesome, speculative, adventurous, thrill-seeking, risk-taking, enterprising, improvident, thriftless, prodigal.

unvirtuous, vicious, susceptible, not impregnable, frail, fallen, seduced, prostituted, taken advantage of, of easy virtue, of loose morals, amoral, immoral, incontinent, light, wanton, loose, fast, naughty, wild, rackety, immodest, daring, revealing, unblushing, shameless, brazen, flaunting, scarlet, meretricious, whorish, tarty, promiscuous, sleeping around, screwing around, streetwalking, on the game, Paphian, Aphrodisian.

A total of 380 alternatives is presented. True, some are duplicated under the various headings, but there are still many from which the writer may choose. Anyone not conversant with the ways of the thesaurus might be fooled into selecting any one of these words as an alternative to ‘wanton’.  And, whilst a great many of them could act as a suitable replacement, there are many which would not do at all.

Let’s try it:

‘She dressed in a manner suggestive of her shifting nature, advertising her readiness to serve any and every man present.’

‘He pulled his partner back to his feet and knocked him down again, before laying into him in coquettish violence as the poor wretch lay at his feet.’

In the female sentence, the woman is now no longer specifically a sexually active creature but someone who accommodates to the needs of the men, perhaps in order to deal with their work requirements.
In the male version, the violence has taken a farcical turn, possibly describing a lover’s tiff solved by aggressive coitus.

So, perhaps not the best possible example but one that I hope illustrates the importance of ensuring that you understand the real meaning before substituting one word for another.  We don’t, after all, want any tarty violence perpetrated on any free-thinking men, do we? Or, perhaps, we do!

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