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Using a Thesaurus

Two blogs ago, I wrote about expanding your vocabulary. I encouraged you to see how many words you already knew and then to look in a synonym finder or thesaurus. How did you do?

 

First, Iíd like to discourage you from heading for the thesaurus just for the sake of giving your work a face lift. I think thesauri should be used when you struggle to find the right wordóitís on the tip of your tongue but you just canít spit it out.

 

Letís say, for instance, that you want to describe someone reacting badly to an announcement. First you have to think about what sort of effect each word has; does it make the person sound childish, rude, sarcastic, indifferent, or aggrieved? Then you need to think about whether any of these colorings are appropriate.

 

The word that pops into my mind is ďpetulant,Ē but that comes with a sense of a pouting lip and a childish tantrum on the way. When I thought through my own collection of possible alternatives, I came up with churlish, impatient, pouting, unprofessional, inflexible, outraged, surly, loutish, brooding, and, of course, the original flavorings from the last paragraph, childish, rude, sarcastic, indifferent, and aggrieved.

 

Petulant might be right if Iím going for something rather childishóitís the best of the lot that popped into my headóbut Iíll have a look in my synonym finder and see what else is available.

 

Looking up petulant gets me peevish, pettish, ill-humored, touchy, testy, and thin-skinned. None of those are an improvement, as all seem to have an old-fashioned cast to them. Looking at the entry for petulance, I see waspishness, querulousness, carpingness, irascibility, grouchiness, crabbishness, huffiness, and other such words, none of which are an improvement.

 

Iíll try looking up one of the other words I thought of on my own, churlish. There are five collections of words for this entry. The first collection of synonyms seems to have something to do with farming, so thatís not right. The second collection cites boorish, loutish, oafish, doltish, cloddish, lubberly, lumpish, crude, crass, brutish, barbaric, reptilian, coarse, and so forth. This is more the effect I was going for, but except for reptilian, none has a better sound to it or a better visual than the original petulant.

 

The third collection includes much the same words I found when I looked up petulant, adding dyspeptic, iracund, caviling, fractious, and bilious. I like the sound of these, but I donít want to send anyone scurrying to the dictionary just because someone had a conniption fit.

 

The fourth collection of synonyms for churlish describes a lack of generosity, like miserly, niggardly, penurious, and parsimonious, none of which serve. The fifth collection comes a little closer, with obstinate, obdurate, resistant, unbending, and implacable. Iím not convinced that any of these words are better than petulant, so Iíll move on to inflexible.

 

Inflexible offers rigid, stiff, unbending, unyielding, unmalleable, and unlimber in the first collection. None of these are right, because they have to do with flexibility and not attitude. The second collection offers immovable, unadaptable, unaccommodating, uncompliant, intolerant, and so forth, along the right lines, but still not improving on my original word. The third collection offers unalterable, undeviating, resolute, and so forth, none of which apply because they donít mean unwilling to change, they mean unable to change.

 

At this point, Iím convinced that my original word (petulant) was the right one, although I did like a few that I came across. Iíll try one more synonym and see if thereís anything there.

 

Aggrieved has two collections. The first collection includes wronged, abused, insulted, hurt, pained, mistreated, persecuted, and tormented. The second collection offers annoyed, plagued, bothered, distressed, unhappy, and woeful.

 

The first collection for aggrieved is akin to what Iím looking foróit sounds like the change is being taken personally, and itís not a good thing. Thatís what I was going for in petulant.

 

Petulant, as I know from the listed synonyms, means someone who takes things personally and isnít gracious in the face of adversity. Churlish seems to mean someone who is treading heavy-footed through life, snarling a little here and there, and never generous. Inflexible seems to have more to do with unwillingness, and although that is along the right lines, it doesnít give the pouting lip and surly response that I want. Aggrieved is close, because it is about taking something personally and spreading the misery.

 

So now, all I need to do is decide between petulant and aggrieved. That isnít hard, because the choice is between my character grumbling to himself or spreading the misery.

 

Admittedly, itís not likely that youíll need this exact search as you write technical articles, but I think you can see how to go about a useful search.

 

Oh, and did I use Wordís thesaurus? Nope, not until just now when I realized that I should mention it. Word did all right with petulant, but left a lot to be desired with aggrieved. I have to admit that I use Wordís thesaurus to check the spelling of easily confused words (discrete versus discreet, and so forth) more than to actually come up with a synonym. I find their collection very limited. I also find Rogetís limited. Perhaps thatís the source for Wordís version. (I use the Rodale ďSynonym FinderĒ from Warner Books.)