If you type the ‘f’ into the bar of my internet browser, the letters ‘acebook’ fall in line behind it. I can enter that blue world in two little key strokes: ‘f’ + ‘enter’. My muscle memory leads me there in milliseconds. Nowadays, this two-step routine makes me feel nostalgic. It pops up on my internet strolls like a once well-trod pathway that retains the marks of old attention. But what it used to make me feel is shame. I would cringe at the fact that this machine had optimised itself so perfectly towards what, by regretful but continuous treading, I had told it I was after. But there’s another more ancient neural pathway that my browser predicts, albeit slightly more laboriously: ‘t’ + ‘h’ + ‘enter’ = thesaurus.com
I am completely, compulsively dependent on thesaurus.com. It is my earliest and my most persistent internet addiction and there is simply no avoiding how clumsy a humble brag that is. Though that being said, I am generally embarrassed by this old friend. In work, I only toggle on to the tab if I can be sure that there is no one behind me. I know that browsing an online thesaurus is not in the same league of shameful office internet behaviour as replaying weirdly erotic YouTube videos of things melting or posting to your niche Tumblr fandom page, but I still feel myself physically shudder at the thought of someone walking by my desk and asking why its open.
“Oh” I would have to say “I just couldn’t think of a better word than ‘interesting’ for this email”.
So complete is my reliance on thesaurus.com that I only recently learned that this is unusual. I presumed it was a banal fact of life that we all scurried back and forth to the little yellow sun amongst our garden of tabs, until I mentioned it to a friend. She told me she had never even been on it. Not once. She had written all her essays, cover letters, emails and messages by drawing from her own independent vocabulary. She could just scour her brain for the right words. You probably do this too, maybe resorting to the thesaurus when absolutely desperate. As someone who will thesaurus-search at least one word a sentence, I can barely believe this possible.
Most of us would consider it ignorant to equate an impressive vocabulary with an impressive intellect and yet it’s hard to shake those early associations. In children’s cartoons, the caricature of the nerd or the professor will be identified by their use of archaic and unnecessary words. While this habit marks them out as uncool or out of touch, it also signals intelligence. As a child, ‘big words’ are what make a book seem important and as an adult, it’s embarrassing to admit that you don’t understand a word. We have been taught to perceive an elegance in an obscure but appropriate word. You can almost imagine the brain gently scanning a list and landing effortlessly at the correct answer.
In the popular imagination then being enamoured with the thesaurus is both insufferably bookish and an established marker of intellectual commitment. It’s like reciting the decimal points of pi — obnoxious but impressive. And like everything ever, there’s a scene from The Simpsons to prove it:
The teachers at Springfield Elementary are on strike and Lisa, determined to continue her studies, exclaims: “Relax? I can’t relax! Nor can I yield, relent or……Only two synonyms? Oh, my God! I’m losing my perspicacity!”
But if this was the only likely interpretation of my thesaurus obsession, I wouldn’t feel embarrassed about my sunny little tab. I’m far too old to care about people thinking that I have an over-zealous enthusiasm for improving my vocabulary. But answering The Simpsons’ scene, there’s the Friends’ scene. You know the one: Joey is writing a letter of recommendation for Chandler and Monica’s adoption application.
Joey: “I want it to sound smart but I don’t know any big words or anything.” Ross: “Well, why don’t you use your thesaurus.”
Joey changes every word so that “They’re warm nice people with big hearts” becomes “They are humid prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps”.
This is the line the thesaurus devotee treads, on the one side, erudition, and on the other, inanity. What society admires is natural intelligence, the gently scanning brain. The person spotted in the university library at 3am asking a computer to reveal synonyms for ‘important’ or ‘says’, is just fodder for a mean tweet.
In Emily Climbs, the sequel to L.M. Montgomery’s Emily of New Moon, Emily describes the experience of reaching for a word that will not make itself known:
“…it seems to me there is something beyond words — any words — all words — something that always escapes you when you try to grasp it — and yet leaves something in your hand which you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t reached for it.”
If you haven’t met her yet, Emily is Anne of Green Gables’ gothic counterpart. Whereas Anne is a storyteller, an architect of imaginary worlds, Emily, crucially, is a writer. Her dedication to her craft and her pursuit of her career gave child-me a model through which to make sense of my own ambitions. I still often feel Mr Carpenter’s question rise to the surface of my brain:
“If you knew you would be poor as a church mouse all your life — if you knew you’d never have a line published — would you still go on writing — would you?”
Montgomery’s gift to her young readers, was that she took Emily seriously. She is not some frivolous teenage diary-scribbler, she is an artist honing her craft. But of all the moments in the books that stuck with me, this is the one that still reverberates in my mind, this idea of a word beyond words, or, as Emily calls it in a phrase stole from Emerson: the random word.
“…that is the Something that escapes me. I’m always listening for it — I know I can never hear it — my ear isn’t attuned to it — but I am sure I hear at times a little, faint, far-off echo of it..”
Anyone who has ever attempted to write so much as a birthday card will know the experience of sensing a word at the edges of your mind, an echo already fading, forever evasive. This is why I love thesaurus.com. It turns echoes into lists of echoes into lists of lists of echoes, each inching me towards a sound. In the great tradition of the hyperlink, I find myself navigating through branches of meanings, the slip road of ‘notable’ bridging the motorways of ‘significant’ and ‘remarkable’ or the questionably-placed exit of ‘taboo’ tempting me off the route of ‘prohibit’. I rarely find the random word, but I do begin to map it’s potential coordinates.
Our minds are never really scanning, they are grasping. We reach out towards wisps so intangible that it feels miraculous when they are even skimmed. This is why I love thesaurus.com. In the moments where the ‘right word’ exists only as some distant half-heard note, how can I resist the chance it offers to stumble, however blindly, into the dark linguistic universe?