You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.

I mentioned the issue of declining vocabulary a couple of weeks ago. There’s another, related, problem that I’ve seen quite a lot: thesaurus abuse.

It tends to be pretty obvious when you come across a writer who is relying too heavily on a thesaurus for more interesting ways to express what they want to say.

Often, they’ll use words that might technically fit the definition of what they’re trying to say, but that actually have very different nuances or connotations from the word they should have used. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of a writer having chosen poorly. Other times it appears to result from a mistaken belief that those words will sound more impressive.

Now, I’m all for using the dictionary and thesaurus to help expand your vocabulary! The trouble is, if you’re not careful to become familiar with words in context as well, they can at times be very misleading. And if you choose the wrong word for your subject, the results can vary from mildly confusing to outright hilarious.

Take, for example, an advertisement for a jazz concert that was going to take place in my city. I won’t post the whole thing, but I found this section particularly interesting:

In case it’s a little hard to make out, the text reads: “The effect upon the audience is devastating.”

While that might be appropriate for a sad, dramatic movie… I’m not sure it’s a great way to attract audiences to a – supposedly – exciting, fun night of music.

The words we choose need to fit the subject – not just in their definition, but in tone and degree. Otherwise we fall into either using words that don’t quite fit, and thus sound silly, or… we write ourselves into a corner, using so many dramatic words that we become like the boy who cried wolf and have nothing left to express ourselves when we really need to say something important.

4 Responses to “You keep using that word… I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  1. Exactly right!

    This will probably make someone unhappy with me, but a thesaurus is not something I gaze upon fondly. To me, it is like those patterns where people color inside lines to make a picture. Is one not also told which colors to use? The kindest that can be said–is that looking up someone else’s words is counterintuitive to the way I approach writing.

    Try this: Say one important thing and say it in the simplest possible words. The VERY simplest. Then, if your description suggests a more unusual word about which you harbor doubt, reflect upon it. Look up the word and study its etymology. The history of the word will reveal if it is the correct one to serve your mood. It may not be even precisely correct, conventionally, but a word nonetheless that is challenging. Your interpretation finds relevance in the mood you have created.

    In the example you have cited, I would be tempted to try, maybe–“The violinist was devastatingly elegant in her rendition!” Ahhhhh, even better yet:

    “The violinist, during her presentation, was devastatingly exquisite!” (Men were veritably swooning in the aisles!)

    Anyway, I didn’t need to look up someone else’s words to arrive at this odd contrast in description.

  2. If you like old books or movies, you may recall that “devastating” was in vogue sometime between the 20’s and 60’s (can’t remember exactly when, but it seems like the 30’s/40’s). It was used as an adjective along the lines of today’s “awesome.” I can’t remember the context, but I can hear Lauren Bacall and others describing something as “simply devastating.”

    That brings up the issue of knowing your audience. An older audience may find this perfectly logical, but it may not speak to younger people. However, jazz audiences are often steeped in the literature and movies of the era, so it may be an inviting reference for especially rabid fans of any age.

    It also illustrates the danger of using old slang for a general audience. If the writer had used a more recognizable period colloquialism such as “bee’s knees,” either instead of or along with this phrase, the reference may have been more obvious.

    My quibble with the concert ad would be “The effect upon the audience . . .”. That seems terribly clunky. Don’t tell me the effect, show me! I’d rather see the audience swooning or dancing in the aisles than read what sounds like clinical diagnosis. It’s jazz, for goodness sake, not a pharmacist’s prescription label!

    Good thoughts, Emily and Robert. I enjoyed both post and comment. Your last point, Emily, reminds me of a C.S. Lewis quote, which is, of course, directed toward prose rather than poetry:

    “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say “infinitely” when you mean “very”; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”

    It’s always nice to be aligned with someone so distinguished!

  3. emilysather says:

    Oh, that is an interesting perspective on it. Now that you mention it, I do seem to remember having heard it in that context once or twice. I hadn’t received the impression from the ad as a whole that they were going for a particularly period feel (as I recall, it was to be a joint concert with a local children’s band – it was the mother of one of the children who first showed it to me, because she’d found the phrasing so odd), but it’s certainly possible that that’s the case.

    So yes, maybe more a matter of misjudging the intended audience’s familiarity with slang than a mix-up in word choices.

    I do agree on the phrasing (“The effect…”)! Given that it was enclosed in quotation marks, I think they may have been going for the look of some kind of promotional quote from a reviewer, but if that’s the case it would’ve likely been more clear and effective if they had attributed it to someone specific.

    I love that C.S. Lewis quote! It seems like there’s a good quote from him to fit almost any subject…

  4. emilysather says:

    I think that can be a very helpful way of looking at it.

    Honestly, I find that the thesaurus tends to be most helpful to me when I’m having one of those “tip of the tongue” moments – when I know what word I want to use, that it fits both the sound and the definition of what I’m going for, but it’s momentarily evading my memory and no matter how hard I try I can’t seem to pin it down. In cases like that, of course, the word’ll usually come to you later once you’re not trying so hard to remember… but looking up a similar word in the thesaurus in order to find the one you actually want can certainly be faster, and avoid breaking the flow of writing!

    In any case, just reading tends to be the best way of expanding the words at your command! In addition to familiarizing you with their use in context, I think that it tends to integrate them into your vocabulary in a much more natural, organic way so that – as you put it – you’re not just looking up someone else’s suggested words.

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