Words fail, & yet–

On December 24, 2012, I posted about a school shooting. So little has changed.

Words fail. And I work in a classroom setting, as do many of my friends and colleagues, and my children’s friends and colleagues (now in their 30s and willing to be teachers–bless them!). These events are not things we can ignore by staying in our own little bubbles of “it can’t happen here.”


Words have failed so profoundly that I’m out in the garden instead, or indoors cleaning my bathrooms or reading books. Books–always my solace when my own words fail.

My latest good read is David Crystal‘s 2004 The Stories of English, already out of date in its last chapter–a fact I’m sure he gleefully acknowledges. I adore his love of how language evolves and find his non-prescriptivist approach refreshing and necessary if we are to keep literacy and communication alive. This book gave me so much information, enriched the knowledge I already have about our language, and made me laugh, too. Granted, it is word-geek humor…but that’s how I roll.

And I needed a few laughs this past week or so. My heart aches; I am sore afflicted for more reasons than I care to explain at present, though the headline news certainly has much to do with my mood. Crystal’s book got me thinking about the course I teach (come fall) and how I’ve already toned down the prescriptiveness in order to convince my students they can write and can be successful with written communication; that they are not “wrong,” just that their audience for written work differs, in college, from high school and from text messaging and other forms of writing. Crystal says we who teach English need to get over the concern about split infinitives and pronoun antecedent agreement and focus on clarity and genuine expression. I have no argument with him there–but many people I know would quibble and complain. And the English lexicon offers us so many options for how to say we disagree!


A book about words–but no, a book about human communication through the mediation of words, spoken and written, and how we got to the forms (plural!) of English we now use to express ourselves. There’s a kind of splendid optimism in Crystal’s thinking about language that somehow made me feel a little less low in spirit. Ah, yes. The solace of books.

Thesaurus obscurus

When I moved into my work office many years ago, I inherited a bookshelf with a few books on it. There was a battered paperback Volume I of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature; A Manual of Style, 12th edition (1969) from University of Chicago Press; The New American Bible for Catholics; a Catechism; a Bartlett’s; several old volumes of The Writing Center Journal; and Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus from 1976. There was a dictionary as well.

Of these older reference works, the one that most entertains me is the thesaurus. The editors employed the alphabetical-style organization, reasoning that a “main entry of a concise statement of the segment of denotation in which a group of words can be construed as synonyms, a strictly alphabetical organization, and the entry at its own alphabetical place of each word that appears as a synonym at a main entry” would “minimize the consultant’s need to grope and guess.” *

But what puzzles me is the choice of entry words in this 1976 text. What college student, ever, would be searching for a synonym for entrammel? Or phthisis? Or incondite? [By the way, WordPress’s spelling checker does not recognize any of these words, although they are all acceptable English terms.] Exanimate may be an interesting replacement for “dead,” but why make it a main entry in the thesaurus? I was a college student in 1976, and I cannot imagine consulting this book in order to find a suitable synonym for drossy. “Worthless” or “pointless” would have sufficed in most cases–and why make the choice of inutile? Wouldn’t that impede the reader’s understanding? Or maybe not–the reader for university writing would have been a scholar, I suppose. brad-hammonds-flikr-books

I find myself wondering whether these choices reflect an era on some sociological level, and on what level that might be. My freshman reading list was longer and “more difficult” than the reading with which my current students are tasked, but those assignments were based on the assumption that we had read considerable canon literature in high school. Nonetheless, in the 70s, we were not scrambling to find synonyms for fainéant unless we were trying to paraphrase a source.

Maybe the answer lies in how long it used to take to get a reference text produced. Surely the research for the collegiate thesaurus would have taken ten years or more; and the text would have been edited by many persons and proofread, typeset, proofed again and again before getting to the printing press, being bound, and finally reaching bookshelves in college bookstores. Were college students in the late 1950s more likely to write using the word culmen or adit?

Honestly, I’m thinking: No.


These days, there are many online thesauruses; but they tend to give short shrift to English’s wide range of approximate synonyms, each with their connotations. My students’ papers often suffer from vague and random use of online thesaurus “suggestions.” The electronic thesaurus, like the dictionaries and encyclopedias online, fail in another important way: it turns out that groping around for a word or a meaning can lead to stumbling upon new words, new connotations, and interesting forays into the depths that our language has to offer.

Anyway, I appreciate an out-of-date reference text for historical and linguistic reasons and because–you never know–sometimes those archaic words inspire, influence, or appear in one of my poem drafts. Groping and guessing may impel a Parnassian to chivy exceptional words through the adit of English and wraxel with new expressions.


* Seriously. Try to unpack that series of dependent modifying phrases. I even edited down the sentence!