The Danger of Thesauruses

Hey guys.

It’s Harry again. Today I’m going to be telling you about the danger of thesauruses. Yeah, you probably think that sounds lame. But it is something writers should look out for. Now, I for one use my computer’s thesaurus all the time. However, there are a few things to be aware of, to be wary of, and to beware of. (That is an example right there!)

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I always like a book with good vocabulary, even if I don’t know what the words mean. It displays skill on the author’s part and brings a real depth into the text. However, I always like to know what the words mean eventually. Usually I can find the definitions of them easily enough; I either do it through context or with the Kindle dictionary (I love those things…). However, sometimes I can’t find the meaning. Well, I can, just not without difficultly. Sometimes the Kindle dictionary’s first definition is something that doesn’t fit, so the convenient pop up denotation is incorrect for the book’s context. Then I have to go somewhere else to see what the word means.

Do you see the problem?

I just left the book. The big words gave me extra trouble. A book is supposed to be for entertainment while laying on your bed, drinking a latte, or hanging upside-down on the monkey bars. It’s supposed to be relaxing. And though this sounds like overkill, it’s work looking up a word sometimes when you have to step away from a good book. Now of course there are the occasional people who like learning new words. But the majority doesn’t, and is completely lost if an important word comes up and it’s too annoying to look up what it means. And suppose they don’t, and later when the story depends on the thing the word meant, they are completely adrift. Bad, bad bad.

Where does complex and devastating vocabulary come from? If it comes from the brain, you usually don’t need to worry about the cataclysmic events described above. Most people are able to figure out those with or without a lexicon (dictionary; I used a thesaurus there).

You see, it is the thesaurus that can cause those disasters.

People often use this powerful weapon when they feel they have overused a word. Let’s look back in my book, Bayonet…OK, I found it. Here in the epigraph of the twenty-fifth chapter, the one hundredth fourty-eight page. The 56,536th word. Does anyone know what penitentiary means? The majority of you probably don’t. It means a priest in the Roman Catholic Church charged with certain aspects of administration of the sacrament of penance.

Why would that be in an epic steampunk novel?

The truth is, it’s not. It’s other definition, a prison for people convicted of serious crimes, is. But what if the first definition shows up first in the Kindle dictionary, or the pope that’s reading my book only knows the Catholic meaning? What happens then, you tell me?!

The word popped up in the thesaurus when I was looking for words like the word prison. I didn’t want to overuse that word, and jail seemed too weak and dungeon too castle-like, so I used penitentiary. Dangerous.

I know that was a lame example, since it is highly unlikely a pope will be reading Bayonet. Let’s hear a better one from Christopher Hopper’s The Sky Riders.

Caste: each of the hereditary classes of Hindu society, distinguished by relative degrees of ritual purity or pollution and of social status.

Caste (Hopper’s definition): a group of birds with riders on their backs.

Now don’t get me wrong. Hopper’s one of my favorite authors. I don’t mean to bust him. I’m sure the definition he uses is based off another real one, maybe from fighter jet terminology or something. But we don’t know that. We know it as a hereditary class of Hindu society, or nothing at all.

OK, so what does this have to do with thesauruses?

Think about my first example. My example. That word came from the thesaurus. In Hopper’s case, I doubt it because mine doesn’t display it, but it could have in theory! 🙂

If thesauruses give you words you haven’t heard before, chances are others haven’t either. They’re probably not popular, well-known ones except maybe by Dickens and Eyre. And since those two will probably not be reading your books, the result is the catastrophe I said before.

That is the danger.

How to avoid such calamities? Be very careful with these useful but deadly weapons. Use them as reminders, and that is all, of words you already know, just didn’t think about. However, sometimes that is  plain out impossible, and you need a new word. I’ve had that, ’cause I still have the word penitentiary in Bayonet. What do you do?

Make sure that there are not too many other, and if so, very different meanings for the word of choice. For example, the word pirate has the meaning of swashbuckling privateers, and the idea of disregarding copyright laws. Corsair on the other hand, is either a ship or a pirate. They’re both similar enough, and most people won’t think a ship would say, “Ahoy, mates!”

If this does not work there is only one other thing you can do.

Hope the right definition pops up on the Kindle dictionary.

You have been warned.

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