Book Review: The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus

Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2nd Edition; Christine A. Lindberg, ed.; Oxford University Press, November 2008; $40.00.

I’m generally not a big fan of thesauruses. They’re open to misuse by inexperienced or bad writers and those that follow the Roget taxonomic schema are impenetrable to anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime learning the Roget system. (My aversion to thesauruses may, in part, be due to being bewildered by the Roget system as a youth.)

But I’m willing to make an exception for the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Here we have a thesaurus that is actually a useful tool to both the budding and the experienced writer.

First off, there is no use of the Roget system here. (Does any current thesaurus still use this unwieldy system?) The organization is strictly alphabetical, as it should be for maximum ease of use. Although there is a brilliant center section, marked with gray-tabbed pages, that contains lists words based on theme. (Want to know different types of Penguin? The list offers you 22, from Adélie to yellow-eyed. I never knew there was such a thing as a macaroni penguin.) Also at the end of the book, in another gray-tabbed section, is a “Language Guide” that provides an overview of grammar, syntax, and punctuation in 48 pages—a useful quick reference.

The entries themselves are fairly straightforward and easy to use. The thesaurus lists the part of speech and gives examples of usage for various senses. The synonyms are also listed by sense, so the potential for misusing a synonym is reduced. Close synonyms are listed in bold. For many words, antonyms are also given. Archaic and historical synonyms are also noted.

I noticed a few inconsistencies. Not all suggested synonyms have their own entries, so one must often also consult a dictionary to ensure that the choice is the correct one for the circumstances. Some of the archaic designations are inconsistent, however. Looking at concubine, for example, one finds courtesan listed as a synonym, and not in the list of archaic ones, which include doxy and paramour. But when one looks up courtesan in its own entry, it is listed as archaic. Care must still be exercised when taking the thesaurus’s suggestions. Although for words that are particularly prone to misuse, the editors include a “Choose the Right Word” inset box that suggests the most commonly used synonym.

Another great feature are the “Word Notes” that are included for selected words. A team of noted writers, grammarians, and lexicographers (including Bryan Garner, Erin McKean, David Foster Wallace, and Simon Winchester, among others) comment on good use of the particular word. These are invariably fun to read. Michael Dirda’s comment on postmodern, for example, reads in part:

Postmodern is among the most widely employed critical terms of our time, mainly because it can mean just about anything. Moreover, it neatly suggests that its user is learned, widely read, up to date on the latest in literary theory, and, in general, really cool, not to say—ahem—edgy. [...] Whatever the case, unless you’re going to define it clearly, don’t bandy the word about.

Finally, I must mention the “Word Spectrum” feature. Here the editor takes a word and provides a chain of synonyms that ends with the antonym of the original term. Example: interesting, absorbing, riveting, transfixing, [...] frivolous, flippant, facetious, ironic, wry [...] unoriginal, unremarkable, unimaginative, boring. It’s not terribly useful, but its a lot of fun. (Well, it is if you like this sort of thing—and given that you’ve read this far in a review of a thesaurus, you probably do.)

So the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus is a useful addition to one’s reference shelf. Plus it has the bonus of being fun to read all on its own. If you’re looking for thesaurus, this one should be at the top of your list.

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