I’ve had an enlightening week reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I’ve avoided his books – and most of the resulting movies – all my reading/watching life, as … well, I’m hellishly easy to scare (seriously, Ghostbusters scared me senseless). But his approach and his advice is straight-up and liberating rather than terrifying. What it did, though, was get me thinking about the difference between being at home in a language (as a first-language speaker) and being an immigrant, a visitor or, even, a spy (a non-native speaker).
King says: ‘Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule’. At first I thought – well, that’s alright if you’re English speaking, and if you’re writing prose. I guess what he is saying is that writing instinctively and honestly beats writing to be fancy. Writing: ‘Lend me your ear’ beats writing: ‘Advance me your stirrup, anvil and cochlea.’
But then I cast my mind back to those English teaching days – sitting in a class of high-school students in the neon-clad city at the end of a long day … all of the students keying words furiously into their pocket translators, flicking desperately through their chosen English dictionary answering questions such as: ‘Where are you going for Chinese New Year?’ with ‘Myself will roam primarily to the kin’. Poetic … but confusing.
At the end of this train of thesaurusean (I know that’s not a word!) thoughts I was thinking: so, a thesaurus can be confusing for the non-native speaker and it can be a dissembling tool for native speakers (I promise dissembling came to mind before concealing), so is a thesaurus only good for a crossword puzzler?
I tweeted Stephen King’s quote a few days ago, and found the responses from @green_knight most heartening:
That put my mind at rest and made me once again pleased and proud to point to our ‘integrated free online thesaurus’ without recalling to mind nearly all of the dialogue from Everything is illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer whose main(ish) character speaks in a sort of parallel English constructed of synonyms and near-misses: ‘Forgive my speaking of English, Jonfen, as I’m not so premium with it.’
But that book is a subject for another wandering.Email this Post