Guest Post: In Praise of the Thesaurus

by Matthew Cheney

Hearing the news that the latest issue of the Writer’s Chronicle contains a statement from poet Mark Doty that, “If you write a poem with the aid of a thesaurus, you will almost inevitably look like a person wearing clothing chosen by someone else. I am not sure that a poet should even own one of the damn things,” I was aghast.

Aghast, I say! Astounded! Appalled!

I have said before that my favorite reference book is a 1946 edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, and that remains true. I covet the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary and continue to dream at night of figuring out a way to convince the good people at Oxford University Press to send me a copy (other than to pay them $500). (I do have The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, which is a delight. It includes a fun foreword by Rick Moody in which he notes that Donald Barthelme used a thesaurus, which should be enough to cause you to make sure you are never without one yourself.) (And, by the way, Mark Doty, what’s so wrong about wearing clothes somebody else picked out?)

Doty‘s statement is idiotic. Irrational, witless, obtuse, hebetudinous, dull-pated, chuckleheaded, purblind, and dim. Writers! Decline to dote on Doty! He wants you to be dumb, in all senses of the word!

Few reference books are as fun to roam around in as thesauri. They demonstrate the marvelous connections possible with language. Dotyish dolts are fools who simultaneously think they have a superior command of language over everybody else while being afraid of the marvelous vast richness of language — they want to tame us and they want to tame it. Don’t give in!

Some of these crustaceous curmudgeons will say things like, “Well, if you must use one of those terrible tomes, make sure you only do so to jog your memory of words you already know.”

That’s terribly churlish advice. Why limit ourselves to words we already know? I want to know more words! I am greedy and lexically lustful!

There’s some sort of strange Romanticism going on in the idea that one must only use the words one has immediately at hand. It’s like people who say one should always go with the first draft of a piece of writing because that’s what’s most pure. Eschew the puritans! Cast off your ideas of Romantic genius! Get to work — and use a thesaurus!

So some people will misuse words, particularly if they are young and untrained, impressionable and ignorant. Oh no, the unruly kids might not fully understand the context and connotations of a word they discover! Horrors! Next thing you know, they might start playing with their words! Nooooo! Stop them before it’s too late!

Poets — be not a Doty! Take instead Wallace Stevens for your model, a writer of vast vocabulary, a man who reveled in language. Do not let the great structure of words become a minor house! Fall into the thesaurus and let yourself feel the obscurity of an order, a whole, a knowledge. Dream of baboons and periwinkles! Let your thesaurus take dominion everywhere! Call the roller of big cigars, the muscular one, and bid him whip from thesaurus pages concupiscent words!


Matthew Cheney’s writing has appeared in Weird Tales, Locus, SF Site, Electric VelocipedeLady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. His blog, The Mumpimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He is a columnist for Strange Horizons and, a member of the jury for the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards, and co-editor of the online magazine The Revelator. Most of the time, he is rational and level-headed, but insults to treasured reference books cause him to become unhinged.