Thesaurisizing

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.

Conversation:
synonyms – speechitating, mutuodialogtion, sonocommunicessence

antonyms – invertoloquacitation, subsussurus, quieticitousness

Conversion:
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.

10 Responses to “Thesaurisizing”

  1. Tom Heehler Says:

    Hey Arnold –
    The only legitimate point you’ve managed to make is the one about me being a linguist. I’m not a linguist — never claimed to be. That’s the work of some overzealous intern in the publicity department no doubt. It’s already been corrected.

    In the meantime, this notion of yours, that I’m prescribing a “one-size-fits-all approach to language, is disingenuous, and you know it. Presumably you’ve read my introduction, and the book’s preamble, so you know that these entries are merely suggestions. Yes, the cover is a little binary, but that’s how the publishing business works Arnold. I suppose we could have printed on the cover, “try to say this sometimes when the context is right,” but don’t say that unless such and such is the case.” Good grief.

    And another thing. Take a look at your own words:

    (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.)

    You used the word “inclined.” You also used the word “flowering.” “I’m Inclined to” is a more well-spoken alternative to “I like.” “Flowering” is a more eloquent alternative to “culminating” perhaps. But Arnold, that doesn’t obligate you or anyone else to use “inclined” at every instance of “like,” or Spartan at every instance of “bare.” That is such a sophomoric argument on your part, I’m having trouble believing that I’m even in this inane debate with an actual college professor. Everything depends on context, Arnold.

    And one more thing. It’s in poor form to underline words for emphasis, especially adverbs. Emerson, Lincoln, Whitman and Twain would cringe. You made several other mistakes in your critique. If you’d like me to point them out publicly, I’m happy to oblige.

    Stick to linguistics, where you belong, and let Hemingway and Steinbeck handle the aesthetics.

  2. Anthony Weiner Says:

    The man doth protest too much. Tom, it’s great that you have a three hour turnaround time between being insulted and calling your insulter to account, but surely as a middlebrow writer — we used to call them hacks, I don’t know if that’s still acceptable — surely as a middlebrow writer you must be used to getting a black eye now and then from us ivory tower types who think your work is representative of a backward approach to education. Yes, your approach is drawn to its illogical conclusion and your book has probably been unfairly represented, but (not to lower the discourse here) the tone of your response betrays your inferiority complex more than anything. Sure, you don’t have a single review on Amazon. You could argue that it’s unfair for a man of Zwicky’s stature to bully a small fry like you. But it’s insincere to say that your entries are “merely suggestions” when you have written a book that proposes to turn humble language to power language. Your book is obviously a relic of the prescriptivist mindset regardless of the contents of your introduction.

    By the way, buddy, thanks for mentioning in your response that I don’t actually have to use the word “spartan” for “bare” in every instance. I guess I can see why you thought it was a sophomoric to even discuss but it really helped me out for you to explain things completely. It turns out you’re a very reasonable guy after all!

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Éamonn McManus on Facebook: Whatever became of Baby Jane?

  4. Tom Heehler Says:

    That’s an interesting take on things Tony. Disregard my introduction, disregard my preamble, disregard my “How This Book Works” section, and ignore my advice that “…for every ordinary word you look up in this book there are usually several options from which to choose. Everything depends on context and your ability to choose wisely.”

    Avert your eyes to all that, Tony, and instead let’s just go with what Arnold says. After all, he’s a man of such high stature that he can’t possibly be wrong here.

    Good god. I’m being lectured on the finer points of eloquence by a guy who underlines his adverbs.

    Butt out Tony. Arnold’s a big boy. He doesn’t need your help.

  5. Tom Heehler Says:

    Whatever became of Baby Jane?

    Again Arnold, you’re making a false assumption — that the words in this thesaurus are prescriptive. If you read the commentary section of my book, you will find many instances where I use the more common word, as opposed to one of my own suggested alternatives. Now why do you suppose I would write or speak at variance with my own advice? Could it be that the entries in my book are not meant to be prescriptive?

    Let me give you a good example. John Kennedy once said, “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Now I’m sure that you and your cranky linguist friends would have a good laugh over that one. I can hear you all snickering now, presuming that my book would have Ted Sorenson change “hard” to “difficult” or “taxing.” But no. I like it the way it is. Word choice requires a measure of discretion.

    Is it easy to misuse my book? Of course it is, just as it’s easy to misuse any thesaurus. But to call it dangerous? Don’t be such a drama queen. Just try to keep your argument reasoned.

  6. The Ridger Says:

    I don’t know, Tom. You want to address Arnold’s main point: “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.”

    Who did you write the book for, and how did you think people who buy such books were going to use it?

  7. Tom Heehler Says:

    Think about it this way Ridger. When Arnold was a boy of eight, it’s fair to assume that he was not “inclined to” the American plain style of Whitman and Emerson. He probably “liked” their style, but he wasn’t “inclined” to it.

    Somewhere along the way though, he read or heard somebody use that term, and he thought to himself, “That’s not such a bad way of putting things.”

    So why draw such a distinction between sources? Why should Arnold have to wait and pick up that term haphazardly by way of osmosis at Stanford? Why not pick it up while thumbing through my book? Wouldn’t that be a much faster and easier way of becoming more articulate? Why does Arnold’s circular logic apply to my book, but not to the actual source from which he adopted that term in the first place?

    Sure he might use some words clumsily at first. A great example would be the publicity release Arnold cited in his original critique of my book. I think it suggested that we all write and speak more “luxuriantly.” God that’s awful, and a classic misuse of any thesaurus. But great tools get misused by people all the time. Give your wife a hammer and she’ll drive home my point.

    It’s like saying, if you know how to use a hammer, then you don’t need one.

    Thanks for listening,

    Tom

  8. Tom Heehler Says:

    My apologies for the sexist comment about women and hammers. That was in poor form, and I’m already regretting it.

  9. arnold zwicky Says:

    There’s not much point in trying to reply to someone who sees himself as a little guy wounded by a drama-queen bully of stature. I’ll post separately about my use of underlining in my postings.

  10. Tom Heehler Says:

    I really don’t think it was I who was wounded in that exchange.

    And I don’t consider you a bully. To be a bully presupposes a larger size, and the moment you stepped out of the linguistics lab and into the reading room to — among other things — correct Hemingway’s grammar, you ceded your noted reputation and your vaunted stature.

    Frankly I think you’re just bored and in search of an interesting blog post. You probably read the horrendous publicity copy, judged my book by its prescriptive cover, and with all that blood in the water you just couldn’t help yourself.

    But you are something of a drama queen, Arnold. Gathering up your marbles and slinking away to a seperate posting? I’ll admit that I was mad before, but this is starting to get fun. Can you not stay and play?

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