Back in the day, say 1852, Peter Mark Roget, finding no thesaurus on the shelf, decided to write one himself, grouping words by related ideas and earning for himself a place in lexicographical history.
Subsequent thesauruses, rivals to Roget, dispensed with the grouping principle and simply listed words alphabetically. Not all of the synonyms were direct substitutes for the word synonymized. The assumption was (and is) that we readers know the nuances and simply need our mind jogged a bit. If we wanted a synonym for "steal" we might come across embezzle -- but we'd have to know that embezzling is a particular kind of stealing. (You can't embezzle a candy bar from the grocery store, but you can steal one. But you really shouldn't.)
Most of the synonyms in these word books were also likely as common as the original word -- ho-hum! Frankly, if we are looking for a sparkling alternative to quotidian diction, the thesaurus is a dinosaurus.
Of course, we might well turn to the many books that alphabetize unusual or obsolete words, but we can't have archaic and eat it, too, since how would we know that "natterjack" was just the word we wanted for a Western European toad that runs rather than hops?
Enter Philadelphia attorney Peter E. Meltzer who, after a decade of sedulous work on his avocation, has published "The Thinker's Thesaurus: Sophisticated Alternatives to Common Words" ($16.95 in paperback from Marion Street Press). Attempting to write the wrongs of thesauruses past (which he does in a marvelous 50-page introduction), Meltzer goes on to deliver the goods, thousands of ordinary words coupled with one or more less common synonyms. But he doesn't stop there. Some 75 percent of the entries contain "clarifiers" helping us understand the particular synonym's "spin." So wrongdoing "in public office" is malversation. And an occupation "requiring little work but paying an income" is a sinecure.
Meltzer writes that he has avoided the use of obsolete words (Shakespeare used a lot of them, but they weren't obsolete then, don't you know). To show their currency, the "thinker's synonyms" get illustrative quotations drawn from magazines, newspapers, and even books published in the last decade. The author quotes from a story in the Sydney Morning Herald from 2000 about the newest in adult education courses -- stripping. The quote comes in the entry for "bravado" and its synonym "fanfaronade": "Fanfaronade," says the story, "will take you through the steps necessary to become a confident exotic dancer. Each participant is expected to have partially completed a semester each of Tassel Making, Cracking Walnuts with Your Own Buttocks on Stage and Booking the Light Entertainment Circuit." Just so you know, there's also a good word for "having a nicely proportioned rear end": callipygian. Time magazine used it of Jennifer Lopez.
Some words cry out to be used in this day and age. Under "superficial (knowledge of a subject while pretending to be learned)" we find "sciolism" and a quote from a Montreal newspaper referring to talk show hosts. Oh, Canada: You, too?
What has me eupeptic (cheerful but, you know, in a scholarly way) is that "The Thinker's Thesaurus" is not a book for impressing friends with a lot of fanfaronade. It's a book that helps us think a little more clearly as we search for just the right word -- especially those who yearn to be philosophers and not mere philophasters.
This book may, however, make you a philosopher faster!
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.