Copyright 2020 Melanie Spiller. All rights reserved.
Using a Thesaurus
MelanieSpiller and Coloratura Consulting
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, I’d 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 word—it’s on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t spit it out.Let’s 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 “petulant,” 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 I’m going for something rather childish—it’s the best of the lot that popped into my head—but I’ll 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. I’ll 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 that’s 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 don’t 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 those will serve. The fifth collection comes a little closer, with obstinate, obdurate, resistant, unbending, and implacable. I’m not convinced that any of these words are better than petulant, so I’ll 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 don’t mean unwilling to change, they mean unable to change. At this point, I’m convinced that my original word (petulant) was the right one, although I did like a few that I came across. I’ll try one more synonym and see if there’s 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 I’m looking for—it sounds like the change is being taken personally, and it’s not a good thing. That’s what I was going for in petulant. Petulant, as I know from the listed synonyms, means someone who takes things personally and isn’t 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 doesn’t 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 isn’t hard, because the choice is between my character grumbling to himself or spreading the misery. Admittedly, it’s not likely that you’ll 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 Word’s 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 Word’s 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 Roget’s limited. Perhaps that’s the source for Word’s version. (I use the Rodale “Synonym Finder” from Warner Books.)