How not to use a thesaurus

Roget the thesaurus enjoys turning clear English into incomprehensible babble. Watch him mutilate a perfectly readable excerpt from my short story, The Emperor’s Cat.

I’d like you to meet my good friend, Roget. Roget enjoys long walks on the beach and messing with other people’s fiction. He’s also a thesaurus (which I suspect is some kind of dinosaur).

Good uses for Roget include remembering the perfect word that’s on the tip of your tongue and using your own vocabulary more effectively.

Bad uses for Roget include using other people’s vocabulary and looking up big words to insert into your magnum opus in an attempt to make yourself look smart.

Hint: it doesn’t.

Since doing things wrong is more fun than doing things right, that’s what I’m going to do here. Yes, it’s game. Here are the rules:

I’ll start with a few paragraphs out of a short story I wrote (because I won’t feel bad about mutilating it and no one will sue me for copyright infringement, which would be bad because I need all my money for coffee).

First, I’ll do a pass replacing every noun with a more impressive alternative suggested by Roget.

Next, I’ll do a pass replacing every verb with a more impressive alternative suggested by Roget.

Then I’ll find out how many adjectives and adverbs I have and consider replacing those too.

Finally, I will sit back and admire the glorious mess I’ve created.

Step 1: The original

Here we have the first few paragraphs of The Emperor’s Cat. (Yep, that’s a link to the full story. You can read it. It’s short.)

You’re welcome to admire my writing or laugh at it, but it contains words and almost-grammatical sentences, so it will do for our purposes.

The original:

On her one hundred and eighteenth attempt, Illenka was granted audience with His Imperial Majesty Emperor Tavian of Avance. She dressed in her finest gown, the one you could tell had once been blue, and tied the ribbons of her least tattered visiting hat under her chin.

Today was the day. Afterwards, everything would be different.

Illenka clutched her gilded token as if it were a diamond and climbed the long road to the Imperial Palace. For the first time, she felt she belonged on this broad avenue among the perfumed gentlefolk with their white gloves, face paint that hid the shadows under their eyes, and leashed bunnies.

Step 2: Roget replaces the nouns

The first thing I realise when I go to do this is that I’m not 100% sure I can identify all the nouns. Don’t laugh. High school English was a long time ago.

So I’ll replace some of the nouns (and possibly a few words that are pretending to be nouns).

Did you know that when you look up “diamond” in the back of Roget, the words you get to choose from to determine the meaning you look up are: good person; playground; baseball; good thing; hardness; and figure?

A diamond is a good thing? I suppose it is. Did I mention that Roget is very clever?

Also, Roget doesn’t think “gentlefolk” is a word. I don’t entirely blame him. I looked up “gentleman: nobleman” instead.

Don’t ask me how “glove” led me to “taunt”. I think Roget was taking the mickey (or else I can’t count).

Version 2:

On her one hundred and eighteenth assay, Illenka was granted confabulation with His Imperial Majesty Potentate Tavian of Avance. She dressed in her finest tutu, the one you could tell had once been blue, and tied the splines of her least tattered visiting millinery under her button.

Today was the lunation. Afterwards, the assemblage would be different.

Illenka clutched her gilded allegory as if it were a windfall and climbed the long shunpike to the Imperial Palatial Residence. For the first time, she felt she belonged on this broad thoroughfare among the perfumed magnificos with their white taunts, physiognomy enamel that hid the umbrageousness under their retinas, and leashed leporides.

I have a new favourite word: umbrageousness. If I ever use it in my fiction, please hit me over the head with a salmon.

Thesaurus says tutu
Take care with that thesaurus, or you never know where you might end up wearing a tutu.
Step 3: Replace the verbs

No, I’m not going to try to replace the verb “to be”. What do you think I am?

Version 3:

On her one hundred and eighteenth assay, Illenka was proffered confabulation with His Imperial Majesty Potentate Tavian of Avance. She swaddled herself in her finest tutu, the one you could distinguish had once been blue, and battened the splines of her least tattered visiting millinery under her button.

Today was the lunation. Afterwards, the assemblage would be different.

Illenka cleaved to her gilded allegory as if it were a windfall and chandelled the long shunpike to the Imperial Palatial Residence. For the first time, she apprehended she had a place on this broad thoroughfare among the perfumed magnificos with their white taunts, physiognomy enamel that obfuscated the umbrageousness under their retinas, and leashed leporides.

And from this I learned that I still use the verb “to be” fairly often.

Also, that I need to pay attention when playing idiotic games with a thesaurus. I’d almost turned “felt” into “napery” before I realised I should have been looking for a verb, not a noun.

Step 4: Replace any other words that still make sense

Roget does not acknowledge “tattered” as a word. I thought I could look up “smeggy” instead. Alas, no.

I went with “ragged”.

Okay, Roget. You and I are going to have words are about this. When I look up “broad”, why are the first three meanings “woman”, “gal”, and “strumpet”?

I was sad to change “leashed” to “yoked”. There’s something pleasing about the phrase “leashed leporides”.

Final version:

On her one hundred and eighteenth assay, Illenka was proffered confabulation with His Imperial Majesty Potentate Tavian of Avance. She swaddled herself in her most cultivated tutu, the one you could distinguish had once been cerulean, and battened the splines of her least dowdy visiting millinery under her button.

Today was the lunation. Afterwards, the assemblage would be variegated.

Illenka cleaved to her gilded allegory as if it were a windfall and chandelled the sesquipedalian shunpike to the Monarchial Palatial Residence. For the inauguratory time, she apprehended she had a place on this comprehensive thoroughfare among the odorised magnificos with their marble taunts, physiognomy enamel that obfuscated the umbrageousness under their retinas, and yoked leporides.

Voila!

Utter unreadability, thanks to my friend and colleague, Roget. Though I confess I do prefer my assemblages to be variegated.

You might be protesting that no one does this. While I’m glad to hear that you don’t, to say no one does is not entirely true. The internet is full of crazies and people who are insecure about their vocabularies.

Long may they amuse us.

This was an enlightening exercise for me. I learned the English language has a lot of words that are rarely used and that most of them should remain that way.

Have you ever come across horrendous thesaurus-misuse? Do you use a thesaurus? How do you use or misuse it?

Sign up for my monthly mailing list to become a special friend. I’ll tell you about my new blog posts and assorted other fun things using solely words that I already know.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

24 thoughts on “How not to use a thesaurus”

  1. I also use a thesaurus to find a word on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes, though, I feel like the word I’m imagining doesn’t exist.

    Also, this is hilarious. I’ve known people who like to use long words just to sound smart, but they used them wrong at least half the time. In the words of Stephen King: “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.” (Although, I feel his quote is a little too strict for those times when the right word eludes you.)

    1. I have those non-existent word issues too. I swear someone has been stealing words from the English language.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. πŸ™‚ I’ve come across fiction where some words are close, but not right, and the author was clearly trying to sound smart. So cringeworthy!

  2. What a fun idea – this is a perfect demonstration of terrible misuse of a thesaurus!!

    I also use a thesaurus when searching for a particular word I’ve forgotten, or if I’ve repeated a word too often and want a synonym, but this kind of thesaurus use… well, it’s certainly amusing, but also a sure-fire way to make something utterly unreadable πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks! πŸ™‚ I can’t actually take credit for the idea. It was a game I used to play with my sister when we wrote together growing up.

      I use a thesaurus to look for synonyms too, but I only use a word I find if I already know it (the dull way of writing ;)).

  3. I remember on the load screen for The Sims it used to sometimes say, “Reticulating splines.” I’m no closer to understanding what that means.

  4. Somewhere, tucked in a drawer and probably hidden inside something uninteresting, will be some of my teenage writing. And as bad as teenage writing is when you look back on it from, well, lots of years distance, there is no teenage writing as bad as that of a teenager who has just discovered the thesaurus.

    I must remember to burn that.

  5. Ever so fun. Once, when I taught middle-school English, I conducted an evil experiment with a thesaurus, having my students try to find a suitable alternative for the word “avid” and then use that word in a sentence. It didn’t occur to most of them to first find the definition of “avid” so Roget led them to create some remarkable sentences for my amusement. Since Roget supplied “grasping” as one synonym, I got several submissions along the lines of “Johhny was afraid to fall out of the tree so he was avid the branch.”

    1. That was a very evil experiment! But very funny too. I hope they learned their lessons about knowing the meaning of words before opening a thesaurus.

  6. A wonderful post, brings back memories. Reminds me of my purple prose phase, I seem to recall I messed up my own texts like this, thinking I was creating fine art. Luckily that phase only lasted until I learned what purple prose was. Then I developed such an allergy to it that these days I rather swing too far in the other direction. I don’t use a thesaurus, but maybe I should because I think I need a notch more variety in my verbs…

    1. You know, we probably all went through purple prose phases. It would be hilarious to share them, but I don’t think I have mine on my computer any more.

      I suspect I might swing too far the other way as well, though perhaps it’s a matter of taste. πŸ™‚

      Btw, I just noticed yours was my 1,000th comment! Yay! I feel like you should win something… like a dragon.

      1. Whee, I posted the 1,000th comment! πŸ˜€ *throws confetti on herself* Yes, I would love to have a dragon, but it’d have to be relatively small and housebroken, I can’t stand dragon droppings indoors.

        Yeah, it’d be fun to share the purple prose. Unfortunately I don’t think I have mine anymore either, it was so long ago. I wish I’d been more determined to keep it. It’d be hilarious to post rubbishy snippets in my blog in the name of education.

        1. One small housebroken dragon coming right up.

          I have some more recent rubbishy work, but I feel the urge to prove I can write before I go showing that I didn’t use to be able to. πŸ™‚

  7. A thesaurus is indeed a dangerous tool. I only use it to help myself remember words I already know. Too risky because of connotations to use words you dont fully understand. Thanks for the post

  8. I could sit and read a thesaurus for hours, when I was a kid. All those words! and most of them are excellent. Some of my teachers still twitch a little, when my appellation is mentioned.

    1. I know! For some reason I find the thesaurus more fun to read than the dictionary. A dictionary is words. A thesaurus is words running in packs, hunting gazelle, and tearing out their throats… Sorry, I got a bit carried away.

      I hope your appellation is mentioned often.

  9. I generally avoid the thesaurus because I’m almost never pleased with what it offers. When I’ve got a word on the tip of my tongue, I prefer to pace around my living room, wearing a hole in the carpet until I have an aha moment! Perhaps using the thesaurus would be faster.

    Also. . .

    As a teenager I really loved the word physiognomy. I’m not kidding. I read Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights a couple times, and those BrontΓ«s really loved talking about physiognomies. I tried making it a thing and started telling all my female friends they had really excellent physiognomies. It’s a good thing I was only interested in them as friends, because they were unimpressed, and typically thought I was telling them they had some sort of awful disease.

    1. There is a certain pleasure in remembering the word yourself, I’ll give you that. πŸ™‚

      “You have a pleasing physiognomy” – best pick-up line ever. You crack me up. It totally does sound like a terrible disease.

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