Wednesday, October 8, 2014


We have all struggled to find  the precise word to express our thoughts.
The appropriate word to convey our message.
The perfect nuance to complete our sentence.

The right word.

We struggle and play with words..  We fumble and flirt with words.
Sifting our options, we may open our dictionary, search our thesaurus,  or check our personal word lists.

Like a diva in a dressing room, we begin to try on words to fit our linguistic figures, discarding style after style, word after word.

We looking for that  je ne sais quoi.

In the Columbus Area Writing Project, several of us have recently formed a new writers group.  We each need to submit our pages to the group members prior to our next meeting so that we have time to  read and comment on each of our pieces,

I am currently rethinking/writing/rewriting/finishing a piece on retirement that I had abandoned a while ago in frustration.

This group has given me the motivation to take a new look.  As I worked with the passage below I considered several options before settling on the word insidious.

It was Katherine Norris who named these surprising, strange thoughts and feelings for me.  Acedia.

The ancient and insidious indifference, the inexplicable restlessness, the paralyzing inattention--acedia that plagued monks.  The spiritual faltering that chased them into doubt and fear and… small sins.

The noonday devil...

Choices before me included sinister, devious, treacherous, crafty, sneaky, deceptive.  Deceptive is the word I had originally used as a place holder while I searched for the right word.

Ultimately, I liked the way  insidious implies almost an unseen seeping inserting itself-- asserting itself-- and I also liked the alliterative sound of insidious indifference.

 When we are struggling to find a word,one of the most helpful tools for writers is a thesaurus.

And the man behind the thesaurus is Peter Mark Roget. If we entered his name in his own lists of words we might also enter synonym beside it.

His Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases has been in continuous publication since 1852. Unlike modern versions written in alphabetical order like  dictionaries, instead, his original publication was a complex network of classified lists arranged by concepts and ideas.

To examine his 1912 version which maintains the categories and classifications of the original click here.

To see a page of his original manuscript housed at the Karpeles Manuscript Library and read his preface click here.

There are many modern and accessible versions of Roget's Thesaurus.

A quick search online or at your favorite bookstore or will generate a long list of options for you.  One convenient electronic version (Kindle), Roget's Thesaurus - Definitive Edition , maintains Roget's categories, his original structure and is also completely searchable.

The complex catalogues and networks of words developed by  Roget have much to say about how we think and communicate. He addressed this in the introduction  to his work

The use of language is not confined to its being the medium through which we communicate our ideas to one another; it fulfils no less important function as an instrument of thought; not being merely its vehicle, but giving it wings for flight.  Metaphysicians are agreed that scarcely any of our intellectual operations could be carried on to any considerable extent, without the agency of words.

We connect words as we build concepts. Semantic networks influence our ordinary thought, daily speech, our academic considerations and conversations, as well as our specialized and disciplinary thinking and writing.

Networks and Knowledge in Roget's Thesaurus, Werner Hullen examines Roget's work in relationship to linguistics, philosophy and history, as well as his influence in other countries.

Hullen also compares several versions of the thesaurus, as well as examining several specific entries in detail considering the cultural and political implications.

For  a comprehensive history and exploration of the far-reaching influences of Roget's Thesaurus, this is an excellent resource.

And finally, now enter The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.

 Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet have created a magnificent picture book for all ages,  a stellar work of art-- an autobiography which narrates Roget's story, captures his love of words, and beautifully and visually honors his devotion to listing, cataloguing,  and connecting words, concepts, and ideas.

We follow young Peter Mark Roget on his sometimes lonely journey with books and words. We watch him as a child of eight start to write his own book---this is where his famous lists began.

On one of my favorite pages, Bryant and Sweet tell us and show his thinking:

as if

The Right Word.

Roget has been helping us in that search since 1852.

How do you find the right word?

Related Post:

 Collecting Words

Today's Deeper Writing Possibilities

Select a piece of writing in which you have been struggling to find just the right word for a sentence or phrase.

Use a thesaurus to identify several viable choices.

Write a short essay or poem or experimental form examining the  nuances of the word choices, the appropriateness of the words, considering  the content, context and container of your writing.

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