All lexicographers, regardless of where on the prescriptivist/descriptivist spectrum they fall, like to tell you they are totally objective when writing their dictionaries. They get worked up into a veritable froth if you suggest otherwise, maybe even raising their voices to conversational levels and daring to make eye contact when they tell you that you are utterly wrong. Lexicography’s underlying tenet is complete objectivity! Get thee behind me, John Dryden!
Notice how they conveniently fail to talk about thesauruses when objectivity comes up.
Unlike dictionaries, there is no one approach to compiling a thesaurus, no Unified Theory of Synonyms. The main goal that all of them have is to present an entry word and a group of words related to that entry word, but how those words are specifically related to the entry–and how they are presented–is varied, to say the least.
I grew up using a Roget’s Thesaurus (and I use the indefinite article advisedly, as “Roget’s” is not a trademarked name in my part of the world). Like other dorks of my genus, I spent many a Sunday afternoon sprawled out on the couch, paging through a reference book. The dictionary and encyclopedia were hauled out any old time, but the Roget’s was reserved for dim, snow-muffled days, when it was too cold to go sledding and I was feeling as pensive and thoughtful as a nine-year-old can possibly feel. Roget’s had an elevating effect on me, and I’d be so moved by its profundity that I’d read it aloud to our dog. “Section one,” I’d intone solemnly to Buffy, our crabby Airedale, whose spot on the couch I was bogarting. “Existence. Being, subsistence, entity, essence. Ens. ” She’d huff and I’d sigh, and we’d stare out the window at the whiteout, feeling deeply for a few seconds about dog treats and life, respectively.
Roget’s is brim-full of existential gravitas because of how it was compiled. In the early 1800s, one Peter Mark Roget thought that a collection of words arranged by semantically related clusters within larger, epistemological categories would be a useful tool for the discerning scholar, and fifty years later, Roget’s Thesaurus was released to the public. Roget’s focused–and continues to focus, under a slew of different names and publishers–on grouping terms within larger semantic ideas and divisions. “Existence,” the first subcategory, includes nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, formal philosophical terms, slang, and a wide variety of words that have something to do with the idea of existence, including “fact,” “sloth,” and–so cheery!– “grim reality.”
A brilliant system, though perhaps a little too much for the average teenager looking for another synonym of “desire” to use in this frickin’ essay on Wuthering Heights. But without it, teachers would no longer be regaled with fabulously inane and overly thesaurized essay sentences like, “Heathcliff dementated because of his propensity for Catherine,” or “Linton was Heathcliff’s foeman in wanting to pay one’s court to Catherine.” Dr. Peter Mark Roget, we salute you.
Dr. Roget’s categorization system isn’t to everyone’s taste, however. Discerning gentleman-scholars may have had the time to take the measure of each of the given synonyms, but the college student running on caffeine and youth, scrambling for an impressive synonym of “admonition” at 4:00am, may not. Some folks prefer a dictionary-like presentation of terms, and Roget’s is intentionally not dictionary-like. Enter the competitors (Merriam-Webster) and the losers who get to try to one-up Dr. Roget (me).
Where Roget’s revels in its epistemological abstractness, the thesaurus I was tapped to write was going to revel in its solidity. Unlike Roget’s, M-W thesauri deal entirely in listing related groups of lexical synonyms and antonyms. Instead of rambling chunks of loosely related words and an index that was half the size of the book, we’d present a list of words that mean exactly the same thing as the headword. Words that were close would be called “related words” or “near synonyms,” and near synonyms would be grouped together by similarity of meaning. Same deal with antonyms. Very tidy.
And because we like tidy things, two groups of words that are commonly perceived as synonyms and antonyms would not be entered, because they were not lexically tidy: members of a genus and complementary pairs. This meant no “sofa” and “furniture,” nor any “black” and “white.” “Sofa” is not a lexical synonym of “furniture” because the word “sofa” does not mean “furniture.” Rather, a sofa is a type of furniture–it’s a member of a genus. And “black” is not the lexical antonym of “white.” If you look up “black” in the dictionary, its definition isn’t “not white.” “Black” and “white” are a complementary pair, like “knife” and “fork,” and “lexicographer” and “boring.” Not lexical, not eligible for entry. I nodded: yes, this is what we are good at, the lexical thing. This will be easy.
And it wasn’t.
Before you can find synonyms, you need to figure out what the meaning core of your headword will be. You must begin with a meaning that is broad enough to encompass most of the synonyms a person will want, but narrow enough that there’s some significant difference between it and another headword.
That seems like common sense until you begin writing and realize that you may need to have a bunch of synonyms in mind before you start actually looking for that bunch of synonyms. I worked backwards: I’d doodle out a list of possible synonyms for “general” and then begin looking for the common meaning they shared. When drafting that meaning, I also had to learn to avoid a common device used in dictionary defining: the synonymous cross-reference. Single-word cross-references in dictionary definitions are synonyms, and why waste a synonym in a meaning core when you can put it in the synonym list? (Because it is easy and I am lazy, that’s why.)
Once the meaning core is in place, you begin the hunt. The first M-W thesaurus was compiled, yes, by hand, with editors flipping through the Third and trying to keep track of all the possible synonyms for “love.” It was an overwhelming task, one sure to induce some strong hallucinations and psychotic breaks, and perhaps that explains why “chatty” was not listed as a synonym of “glib” in the first edition of the Collegiate Thesaurus but “well-hung” was. I had it easier, but even with a computer and a searchable dictionary database, finding and ordering synonyms and near synonyms was tricky. My nature was working against me: I am a splitter–a definer who likes detailing every possible denotative nook and connotative cranny of a word’s meaning–and so perhaps not the best person in the world to write a thesaurus. ‘Togs,’ I reasoned, means ‘clothing’, but it also refers to clothing worn for a specific purpose. Is that enough lexical synonymy to include ‘togs’ as a synonym? Or is it a near synonym? A vacuum whirred downstairs. It was 6:00pm, and I was going to be locked in the building overnight with nothing to eat and a bunch of boring, pedantic ghosts if I didn’t leave pronto. Synonym it is.
I began to rearrange lists of words by register, then by connotation, then for no other reason than they looked right next to each other. “Gear” and “rig” seemed to fit together–they are more technical words, referring to specific types of clothes used in particular activities, like mountaineering. And “costume” and “garb” sat well next to each other–they refer to dress-up, fanciful, special-occasion clothes. But those two groups are distinct: “costume” and “rig” didn’t work together, and that seemed right to me. It’s just like assembling a puzzle, I reassured myself. A puzzle with blank pieces you color in as you place them, and in the end you hope you have come up with a convincing representation of the Mona Lisa.
This sort of derangement is both de facto and de rigueur in the lexicography biz, but I was unprepared for one thing: that what seems right to me may not be what seems right to other editors. My thesaurus batches were returned; my carefully constructed near synonym groups had been scattered and re-formed. “Rig,” “outfit,” and “costume” ended up together, with “gear” left out. Other near synonyms were dropped; some were promoted to true synonyms. I was so thrown by this that it took me a while notice the crowing glory of the revision: my managing editor added two true synonyms I had, in all my shuffling, missed: “clothes” (with the comment “!!!”) and “habiliment(s).” “Clothes” is exactly the sort of obvious synonym it’s easy to overlook when you are slogging through a dictionary, trying to find every last possible synonym or antonym of a word. I had fallen prey to Well-Hung Syndrome. As for “habiliments,” I had never seen the word before in my life. Assuming the Drudge’s Hunch, I stared at my reconfigured entry. I rubbed my face, and then rubbed it some more, until it began to look like a flatiron steak. The revisions made me feel a bit dumb and defensive.
Defensive, yes, because isn’t lexicography coolly objective? And isn’t my very objective read of “gear” and “outfit” perfectly fine the way it is, since I’m totally and completely objective? But if we’re both objective and we disagree, then how objective are we being? One of us, I tutted to myself, was not being objective.
In truth, neither of us was being 100% objective. The very nature of grouping, ranking, and sorting near synonyms means that a certain amount of subjectivity will inevitably be a part of the process. I stuff my word sausage differently that the managing editor stuffs his.
Nonetheless, my turd-stirring nature won out. I padded over to the managing editor’s cubicle and interrupted his reading and marking with my concerns regarding objectivity. He listened patiently to my concerns about the order of near synonyms, but when I brought up “habiliments,” his brows beetled. “Kory,” he sighed, “that sort of catch is exactly why we do this as a group. ‘Habiliments’ is a synonym for ‘clothing,’ even if you don’t know the word. And if you really think that ‘outfit’ doesn’t belong with ‘gear’ and ‘costume,’ then write your reasons down on a pink and I’ll consider it.”
He shook his newspaper in irritation. “Last I checked, my title was not ‘Dictator.’ This is a group effort.”
Lexicographers get defensive about objectivity because we know that, no matter how much training we have, we cannot be truly objective because we experience language subjectively. (We are, contrary to popular belief, fully human and not at all robots.) Sometimes our own personal experience with the language is invaluable: that subjective sprachgefühl helps guide a lexicographer when defining, when editing, when rubbing a jumble of synonyms between your hands to discover their relative heft and shape.
Sprachgefühl isn’t just weighed against written evidence–it is put against other sprachgefühlen. Every citation we take, every rewording of a definition, every example sentence penned is a subjective use of language. But when considered together, subjectivity fades into a picture of patterned, communal–and objective–use. Language is a human group effort, and so should lexicography be.