When I got home from work Friday the box with my new Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus was on my porch. Ooh, it was heavy! I ripped open the box and was delighted to find a big, beautiful hardcover book. I was expecting a paperback so happiness right from the start.
Not until Saturday afternoon was I able to sit down with my new treasure. When I say treasure I really mean it because this is not your mass market collegiate Roget’s piece of poo. I can say that because I used to have one of them. I got it in high school to help me through those five paragraph English class essays in which it is very important to impress the teacher with your giant vocabulary. At least from a student perspective. No doubt high school English teachers shed many a tear over the failed attempts at verbal acrobatics their students insist on perpetrating. That is probably why my freshman teacher made us read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. If only we actually paid attention.
I took Roget’s off to college with me. I must have used it through the years. A lot. By the time I sent it to the great recycling bin in the sky a few years ago, the pages were thoroughly foxed, the cover creased and worn, and the spine cracked. I used it because there was no alternative when searching for the perfect word. When the magic internet came along Roget sat collecting dust. But Google isn’t any better than Roget really, just more convenient and less dusty.
So why would I want a brand new thesaurus? I didn’t until I read Michael Dirda singing the praises of the Oxford American in an essay in his book Browsings. Now that I have had a chance to look the book over I wonder if I can make you want one too?
I said the book is beautiful, right? A lovely blue and white jacket on the outside. On the inside an easily readable font in a size many times above microscopic. In fact, if the book weren’t so heavy I could hold it up just far enough away that I can read it without my glasses on. These eyes are over forty and I must say it was the freakiest thing when my optometrist told me at thirty-nine that my eyes will likely begin needing a little extra help at forty. Pshaw! I snorted. Then a year later I was back in her chair telling her the letters in my books were looking a little fuzzy. At first I tried to pass it off as power of suggestion but I couldn’t make that last very long. The paper is bright white but not glaring and the thickness is just right – not so thin you are terrified of ripping the pages as you turn them but not so thick that they aren’t flexible and easy to thumb through.
While the book is a pleasure, it is what’s inside that really counts: Rabbit hole. You know how when you have a really good dictionary like the OED or American Heritage and you can get lost for hours just looking up words, leaping from one entry to another? Tell me this happens to you too and I am not out all alone in left field here. This thesaurus is just like that. Words leading to more words.
Each entry tells you the part of speech, uses the word in context and suggests antonyms. There are also little “more information” boxes for words that cause grammar nightmares like backward/backwards. There are also little boxes that offer helpful suggestions, providing a “word link” or “choose the right word” or the best ones, “reflection.” The reflection is a little tiny thought about the word by one of a number of writers like Zadie Smith, Lydia Davis and the dastardly Michael Dirda who made me buy this magnificent book. There are also quotes sprinkled throughout and word clouds sometimes appear to provide a visual representation of frequently associated words that might go with that adjective you just looked up.
In the middle of the book appears a section called “Word Finder.” The pages are bordered in light gray so you can easily open to this section when you pick up the book. Here you will find thematic lists in case you want to know what all the chemical elements and their symbols are. Or lists of dog breeds or different types of restaurants or cheeses. There is also a list of words considered archaic (darbies = handcuffs), “literary” words (clarion, slay, visage), and common Latin phrases.
There are more gray-edged pages at the back of the book. These are dedicated to basic grammar, spelling and punctuation. Nothing elaborate, just the basics in case you need help with your dangling participle or whether you need a comma there.
This is a thesaurus intended for writers after all. But it also serves word-lovers well. It would be especially marvy when paired with a good dictionary so they could talk to each other. This baby will be talking with my American Heritage. They will be canoodling on my desk together. I expect they will get along well. Sorry Google.
It isn’t too late to add this to your list for Santa or find a copy for your favorite word nerd. Almost guaranteed to be love at first sight.