Over on Language Log, Mark Liberman looks at a recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal cartoon (also passed on to me by Paul Armstrong), in which a high school teacher, faced by thesaurisizing students, puckishly creates a fake thesaurus, only to have the students pick up her fancy-sounding inventions.
And a while back, Bruce Webster passed on to me a query about a recent book, The Well-Spoken Thesaurus, full of (generally bad) “Don’t say that, Instead say this” advice.
First, Zach Weiner’s cartoon. Mark Liberman reproduced one of its seven panels, but I haven’t been able to create readable versions of them, so here’s the text:
(1) Teacher (female): To punish my high schoolers for overusing their thesauri, I set up a fake website.
(2) It looked like a thesaurus, but it was nothing but fancy-sounding fake words.
synonyms – speechitating, mutuodialogtion, sonocommunicessence
antonyms – invertoloquacitation, subsussurus, quieticitousness
synonyms – revelactactation, modifictionm morphatorium
antonyms – sameulacrum, nununstaunch, sticktothativeness
(3) Sure enough they were all indulging in needless thesaurus abuse.
[an essay] And Ophelia thusforth, was feigning insanitation, which subsequesterly morphatoriated into acual insanitation.
Subsequesterly, Hamlet, having pretensized his insanitation went insanitoid, as he reactified to such a paintastic situality.
The inevitated outcome is the morphatorium
(4) [the panel that Mark reproduces] I tried to tell them it was a prank, but by the time I did so, they were so used to the fake words, I couldn’t communicate.
Teacher: It was fake! Fake
Student 1: Whatly regards her speechitating?
Student 2: I am lacrimonious as to that topicality.
(5) Soon, the entire student body was linguistically infected.
Student 1: Wouldsest you accompanize me at prom in one half-fortnight?
Student 2: It wouldsest be honorigible to me!
(6) I kept quiet and hoped for the best in some ways, the emerging dialect was beautiful.
Student: As the solaroid settitates in the west, my heartoid saddenations withouting you, my mind, depressed groanifies my speechitations.
(7) Then I remembered they were all writing essays for college admission.
Student 1: What speechitated Harvard?
Student 2: They anti-yessed my applicatrix!
We’ve spent some time on Language Log on thesaurisizing, and indeed on the verb thesaurisize. From my “Waving around the thesaurus on Language Log” (9/30/10):
on 10/30/08 in “Periods” (link), I used thesaurisize for a more specific sort of thesaurus-searching, namely looking for synonyms to vary the vocabulary in writing:
One of the facts of life in teaching is that every field necessarily has its own set of concepts, and terminology to go along with them, and students have to learn that — even though they’ve been taught to vary their vocabulary and not just keep using the same words over and over again (good advice, but it has its limitations) — there’s very little wiggle room with technical terms. Thesaurisizing is a really bad move.
There are other Google hits (not from Language Log) for thesaurisize in approximately this sense, and apparently even more for thesaurize in this sense. (The OED has no modern cites for either verb, in any of the possible spellings.)
Mark Liberman entered the thesaurus stakes on 12/6/04, in “Overpermissive quotatives: grammar change or thesaurusizing?” (link), using thesaurusizing “to describe the process of replacing words with fancier equivalents in order to impress readers”, as he put it in a later posting. Again, a more specific meaning.
In this later posting, “Native language? Plagiarism” of 1/22/07, Mark was interested in yet another more specific reading, asking the question, “Is there a word for thesaurus-driven mis-substitution to disguise authorship?” — a species of plagiarism that attempts to cover its tracks by re-wording. Mark collected suggestions, including thesaurism (also not in the OED), but casting his own vote for Ran Ari-Gur’s lovely neologism text laundering (parallel to money laundering) in a posting the next day.
And now to The Well-Spoken Thesaurus. From the ad copy:
Linguist Shows How To Be More Powerful and Eloquent In Your Everyday Speech
Ever had the thought, “Why did I say that?” or “That sounds so childish!”? Ever wish that your writing skills (prowess) were more elegant and rich (luxuriant) sounding? Author Tom Heehler comes to the rescue in his guide to eloquence, The Well-Spoken Thesaurus (Sourcebooks, February 2011).
Tom Heehler has spent four years compiling and dedicating his life to enrich his vocabulary – and now brings his findings to others. He started this mission after enrolling at Harvard University in the spring of 2006 when he realized just how inarticulate he was. Finding no easy way to improve his speech and prose quickly, he simply decided to write down what he said, and pair it with what he should have said –and after years of collecting, the makings of The Well-Spoken Thesaurus came to life.
The Well-Spoken Thesaurus contains 17 fun, yet informative lessons ranging from famous authors, like Ernest Hemingway, to top speakers, such as President Barack Obama. It also includes thousands of alternatives to common words and phrases …
The front cover:
The back cover:
And the mini-bio inside:
About The Author: While at Harvard Tom Heehler realized how inarticulate he was and started to jot down what he said, and write down what he should have said. He compiled so much that one day he decided to write a book with them and share with others! Tom Heehler is a degree student at the Harvard University Extension School and creator of Fluent in Five Languages, the free online language course where students learn to speak four languages simultaneously – French, Italian, Spanish, and Romanian. You can find this novel approach to language acquisition at FreeLanguageCourses.Blogspot.com.
Bruce Webster was intrigued (and puzzled) by the description of Heehler as a “linguist”. Ok, it’s a great big ad, but even people who advertise flagrantly can have significant and useful things to say.
My problem with the book is that I don’t understand what it’s for (except perhaps to prey on readers’ uncertainty about their linguistic abilities and to offer them a step up out of their benightedness if they buy this book). For the most part, it’s a giant exercise in notching up plain style to more elevated style, in the direction of “eloquence”, via the choice of — oh, dear — powernyms.
(I have nothing against high style, but mostly I’m inclined to American “plain style” (traceable back to the 19th century, at least to Emerson, flowering in Lincoln, Whitman, and Twain, among others). What I really object to is the idea that one style should fit all.)
Heehler gives 17 object lessons in “rhetorical form and design”, using passages from writers ranging from Edith Wharton through Barack Obama. He argues that the versions these writers produced were better than the alternatives (sometimes surprisingly, as when he maintains (p.11) that Hemingway’s “He is dead since April” is better than “He died in April”; that (p. 12) that his “Then it was stopped” is better than “Then it stopped”; and that (p. 12) his “[an assortment of things] was an excitement” is better than “[an assortment of things] excited them”. (Note predicate adjective rather than verb, passive instead of active , and predicate nominal instead of verb, all of them flagged as “weak” by tons of usage critics.)
I’m not saying that these writers’ choices were bad — they had their own purposes (mostly largely unexamined) in writing, their own personal styles, and their own audiences to address, and they did this skillfully — only that others might well have had good reasons, on each of these grounds, for making other choices.
I’m also not objecting to teaching, advice, or criticism that takes the form “Don’t do that, do this instead” — in which a (particular style of) art or craft is passed on implicitly by recommending replacements for specific actions. We get into problematic territory when such advice is couched in abstract general terms (“Avoid clichés”, “Omit needless words”, “Resist falling into lingo”), or even advice about substitutions for specific items, as (p. 243):
mostly: in large part, to a great extent, primarily, largely, principally, chiefly; or for the most part, in large measure, preponderantly; or in great measure, predominantly, above all
[As it happens, mostly is a feature of my personal style. I view it as plain style, in contrast to chiefly, primarily, principally, preponderantly, and predominantly, and as usefully briefer (as well as plainer) than in large part, to a great extent, for the most part, in large measure, and in great measure -- though since the alternatives differ in their phonological weight and semantic/pragmatic nuances in addition to their stylistic characteristics, I might choose any one of them in certain circumstances (usually without consciously reflecting on my choices, but going by instinct; if writers had to explicitly justify every one of their choices, none of us would ever finish a paragraph, or maybe even a sentence).]
I have pages and pages of cavils and complaints, some scribbled in pain (though I didn’t take the days it would have required to annotate the whole book).
A sample, from the “200 Well-Spoken Alternatives to Common Words and Phrases” at the end of the book, just from #1-45 (pp. 384-5):
talking about for talking of
upon for on
albeit for admittedly
faux for fake
I fear that for I am afraid that
they remain for they are still
called upon to do for asked to do
courting disaster for asking for trouble
at hazard for at risk
spartan for bare
Ah, spartan ruined choirs, spartan walls, her spartan shoulders, the spartan facts, the baby’s spartan behind, and so on.
(These cases aren’t all the same, of course.)
The problem is that to take such advice, you already have to appreciate the subtleties of style and usage in question — in which case you don’t need the book. Otherwise, it’s a dangerous exercise in applied thesaurisizing.