When I moved into my work office many years ago, I inherited a bookshelf with a few books on it. There was a battered paperback Volume I of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature; A Manual of Style, 12th edition (1969) from University of Chicago Press; The New American Bible for Catholics; a Catechism; a Bartlett’s; several old volumes of The Writing Center Journal; and Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus from 1976. There was a dictionary as well.
Of these older reference works, the one that most entertains me is the thesaurus. The editors employed the alphabetical-style organization, reasoning that a “main entry of a concise statement of the segment of denotation in which a group of words can be construed as synonyms, a strictly alphabetical organization, and the entry at its own alphabetical place of each word that appears as a synonym at a main entry” would “minimize the consultant’s need to grope and guess.” *
But what puzzles me is the choice of entry words in this 1976 text. What college student, ever, would be searching for a synonym for entrammel? Or phthisis? Or incondite? [By the way, WordPress’s spelling checker does not recognize any of these words, although they are all acceptable English terms.] Exanimate may be an interesting replacement for “dead,” but why make it a main entry in the thesaurus? I was a college student in 1976, and I cannot imagine consulting this book in order to find a suitable synonym for drossy. “Worthless” or “pointless” would have sufficed in most cases–and why make the choice of inutile? Wouldn’t that impede the reader’s understanding? Or maybe not–the reader for university writing would have been a scholar, I suppose.
I find myself wondering whether these choices reflect an era on some sociological level, and on what level that might be. My freshman reading list was longer and “more difficult” than the reading with which my current students are tasked, but those assignments were based on the assumption that we had read considerable canon literature in high school. Nonetheless, in the 70s, we were not scrambling to find synonyms for fainéant unless we were trying to paraphrase a source.
Maybe the answer lies in how long it used to take to get a reference text produced. Surely the research for the collegiate thesaurus would have taken ten years or more; and the text would have been edited by many persons and proofread, typeset, proofed again and again before getting to the printing press, being bound, and finally reaching bookshelves in college bookstores. Were college students in the late 1950s more likely to write using the word culmen or adit?
Honestly, I’m thinking: No.
These days, there are many online thesauruses; but they tend to give short shrift to English’s wide range of approximate synonyms, each with their connotations. My students’ papers often suffer from vague and random use of online thesaurus “suggestions.” The electronic thesaurus, like the dictionaries and encyclopedias online, fail in another important way: it turns out that groping around for a word or a meaning can lead to stumbling upon new words, new connotations, and interesting forays into the depths that our language has to offer.
Anyway, I appreciate an out-of-date reference text for historical and linguistic reasons and because–you never know–sometimes those archaic words inspire, influence, or appear in one of my poem drafts. Groping and guessing may impel a Parnassian to chivy exceptional words through the adit of English and wraxel with new expressions.
* Seriously. Try to unpack that series of dependent modifying phrases. I even edited down the sentence!