Use a Thesaurus

Chris-Lonsdale

For any writer, no matter whether or not you are new or seasoned, one thing we all have to take into account when writing a book is the use of appropriate words. There is always a danger of a writer showing off, intentionally or otherwise, by using certain words simply because he or she is familiar with them and likely uses them whenever conversing with people in his or her daily life, instead of making use of a Thesaurus, looking for alternatives.

What do I mean by this? To illustrate my point the following part of a sentence in a book I am currently re-reading by one well known author, quite literally puts words into the mouth of his chief character, which simply were not in use during the time period the story is set in. They came swarming downstream, transports filled with palace servants and slaves and all their accoutrements and paraphernalia.” To begin with the book is set during the the time of the Pharoahs in ancient Egypt. Words like accoutrements and paraphernalia were not in use.

Let us take a look at paraphernalia first. Definition: miscellaneous articles, especially the equipment needed for a particular activity. Using it in the book concerned is incorrect as it didn’t enter the English language until the 17th century, making it unknown in two thousand five hundred BCE.

Ok fine so it wasn’t in use back then clever clogs. So what? Who cares? How about using a word like trappings in its place?

You could, but once again it wasn’t in use at the time. It first appeared during the period of language development known as Late Middle English. What the author should have considered using is the word belongings. In this case it is highly appropriate as it refers to ‘movable possessions’. More importantly it is a word which has been around forever.

Now for accoutrements. Definition: an additional item of dress or equipment.

It sounds acceptable right? Not in this case. It didn’t appear until the 16th century, originating from the French word accoutrer which simply means clothe or equip. So once again the author is putting words into his character’s mouth that simply weren’t in use in the time period the book is set in.

Well, in this instance perhaps he should have considered using the word device.

You could, but it didn’t appear until the period of Early Middle English.

What about using equipment?

Once again, you could. But it didn’t appear in our language until the early 18th century. The word is French in origin – equiper. Now, are you beginning to see what a minefield the English language is for writers?

~~~

In the author in question’s case he simply gets away with it for two reasons, the first being that he is a highly successful and respected author. The second reason is that most people, by that I mean ordinary book lovers, wouldn’t consider questioning his choice of words, merely because they accept and understand the words he uses.

But we’re writers. So we have no excuses. Take a moment when you are writing a book to ask yourself if the language you are using is appropriate. Above all, invest in a Dictionary and Thesaurus, and please make sure the words you employ were common during the time period your book is set in, as far as is practicable. Take a tip from me, try to simplify by striking a sensible balance. Above all, refrain from the use of long words where possible.

Does all of the above really matter these days? Damned right it does! Just wait until your next novel appears in the market. There are pedantic people out there who take great delight in pointing out things like the above, as well as spelling errors under the guise of offering a legitimate review for your work. To survive, you must become not only an editor, but also someone most writers loath, a pedant, to protect your work and your reputation as a writer…

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10 thoughts on “Use a Thesaurus

  1. The case you’re speaking of seems rather specialized: it seems to be supposedly the spoken dialogue of a character speaking in 17th Century English? I’d expect there’d be lots of inaccuracies in something like that which wouldn’t be particularly important unless the book purported to reproducing the speaking style/vocabulary of the time accurately.

    What I thought your column was going to be about was the inappropriate use of uncommon words either incorrectly or when a common one would really do just as well. I always feel a bit sad when I’m reading something by someone who seems to believe that they can pull just any old “synonym” out of a dictionary or thesaurus and use it to make themselves seem smart. Usually it has the opposite effect since the particular fine connotations carried along with the unusual word are likely *not* at all appropriate in the context where it is stuck.

    I have a large vocabulary and pretty good ear for appropriateness of use, but I gained that largely from reading the original works of Dickens, A. Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, etc etc etc all through grade school. I simply absorbed the language and vocabulary by osmosis. It’s much harder if you don’t have a background like that and are looking at a list of words that you’ve almost never seen or heard before and which all mean ALMOST the same thing. Pick the wrong one and you’ll be a naked emperor!

    And even when you ARE using a word correctly, if it’s TOO uncommon it’s usually smart to think twice about who your reading audience will be and whether it might be better to go with something a bit more widely known. Plug your word into a site like:

    http://www.wordandphrase.info/frequencyList.asp

    to see if it ranks in the top 25 or 50 thousand: there are a heckuva lot of people running around out there with 10,000 to 20,000 word working vocabularies. Once you start throwing in words beyond the 50k point you can pretty much guarantee that a fair portion of your readership will be guessing at your meaning and will start getting ticked off if they encounter the problem in every page or two of text.

    – MJM, soliciting sclerotic sesquipedalians sporting sarcastically saturnine solipsisms

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    • “The case you’re speaking of seems rather specialized: it seems to be supposedly the spoken dialogue of a character speaking in 17th Century English?”
      Not specialized at all. Most people would simply accept the words an author used, not realising that ancient Egyptians didn’t make use of particular words that only appeared much later on in our collective history as a species.
      By the way MJM, you should thank me for retrieving your comment from the ‘Spam’ bin. It seems that even WordPress wasn’t exactly sure what you were wittering on about. πŸ˜‰

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