I Was a Thesaurus Addict

Paper lasted longer, printer cartridges didn’t dwindle, prelabeled files remained empty. This was the first sign. It’s nothing, I thought. Every writer has such times. Word output isn’t everything. I’ve been thinking hard lately—that’s work too, you know. 

The next sign, only slightly more distracting, was the intermittent ache in my right arm. Had I slept on it the wrong way? Lugged that last heavy bag of groceries too far?  

Then at my desk, I reached up toward the bookshelf and felt a sharp pang. Must have turned too quickly. But the pain wasn’t bad enough to seek treatment and became almost natural. I ignored the apparent coincidence that my arm hurt only when I reached to the bookshelf.  

The discomfort increased, but I kept dismissing it and concentrated on more cerebral matters. Then one day all pain stopped. When I realized why, my steadfast offhandedness crumbled, replaced by the first real fear.  

My arm no longer ached because I no longer stretched toward the bookshelf. Without my even knowing when, what I’d reached for had taken up permanent residence on my desk. An effortless inch away from my hand sat my thesaurus.

Of course, I told myself, I can put it back on the shelf any time. I’ll leave it here and take my work to the park or the library.

But the park was always too hot, too cold, rainy, or windy. The library was too crowded, too empty, dusty, dark, bright, quiet, or noisy. 

Please, don’t judge me. My constitution may be weak, my character low, and my genes defective, but my apologia is worthy. The thesaurus, after all, is no faddish upstart. Long respected, even revered, by the literary elite, its reputation remains spotless in the serious writer’s incessant search for flawless expression.  

You may ask, Why in the Cloud’s name don’t you use an electronic thesaurus? I’ve tried. True, it produces no strain on my arm and consumes no trees. But the online collection sorely lacks the physical, emotional, and lexical satisfactions of the real-print thesaurus. 

Too, the electronic vocabulary, I saw with pride, is more limited than mine, too often flashing that annoying message, “No synonyms found.” Besides, despite all our high-tech wonders, the sound and feel of the almost-silent keyboard and splash of screen letters can never fulfill like fingering real pages, holding hard covers, or reading actual print. 

 I still relish the very first time. Laboring over an unyielding third draft, biting my lip and my pen cap, I suddenly recalled my thesaurus, the classic Roget’s. A years-old birthday present, it had long stood on the bookshelf, unassuming and untapped. In all innocence I reached for it, sincerely believing it would only help me produce a better piece of work.  

That maiden visit elated me. Instantly, generously, the thesaurus gave me exactly what I needed. A glorious fullness washed over me, mind and body bathed in radiating warmth. Surely something as unarguable as finding the perfect word couldn’t be wrong. 

A few days later, stymied again in the current manuscript, I thought of the thesaurus. But the first citation didn’t quite work, so I turned back to the index. Little did I foresee the significance of that deceptively ingenuous move. Like the first pure nod to the serpentine smile, such a small act would set my entire future course.

Thus began my downward spiral. The thesaurus beckoned more and more often.  At the start, it charmed at every page of my draft, then at every paragraph, and too tragically soon at every sentence.  

Even at that advanced stage, a hardier soul might have been able to pull back. But I’d been a word lover for too long. Not only as a child had I for hours played with puns in the secrecy of my room, but well into adulthood I’d harbored more than a mild fascination with morphemes, a too eager enthusiasm for etymology, and feverish fixations on choice derivations.

The thesaurus enticed me. How soothing the thumb index to the touch, how hypnotic the neat double columns! How subtly philosophic the classes of categories, and how wryly logical the progression of subsections! Worst sign of all, how exquisite each little shock of wonder as my eyes caressed one word after another, surely fathered by Lewis Carroll.

My manuscripts withered as the thesaural words consumed me and numerical designations enthralled. At 582, I savored the piquant complexities of word: onomasiology, portmantologism, sesquipedalia. At 660.l, .3, .6, and .10, I reveled in the egalitarian brew of depository, repository, conservatory, entrepôt, cache, stash, and glory hole.   

I stopped pretending the thesaurus had any relation to my work. My computer, pushed back to a far corner of the desk, grew a blanket of dust, its screen dark and neglected. Formerly the stuff of creative banquets, it now offered only a thin broth beside this richest of feasts, this cornucopia of print, this gourmand’s larder for my swelling verbal appetite. 

Mesmerized, I pored through the index. Word by tantalizing word, I plumbed the secrets of the bounteous text. Days and nights blurred in uncounted circadian cycles of synonymous rapture.  

Eventually, though, the ominous reality of every addict surfaced: the more I got, the more I needed. First with uneasiness, and next real urgency, I found myself thumbing faster from index to text, text to index, ever devouring, ever unsated.

As the alphabet inevitably ebbed, I found myself caught in the classic plight of the addicted, between the Scylla of escalating need and the Charybdis of dwindling supply.  Yet, impelled to go on, I reached the finalities: wadi, yegg, and (Lord have mercy)  Zend-Avesta. 

Frantic, an em away from certain devastation, and feverishly plotting to sell my computer for a deposit on the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary—I heard a voice. 

Surely a guardian muse of wordaholics, it sang, “After the end, the beginning.” My first impulse was to go straight to the entry for obscurantist. Instead, I pondered and the message came clear. The beginning, the voice was saying, can be returned to again and again. In our virtually inexhaustible language, even a one-volume thesaurus offers endless treasures. 

This epiphany elated me, but only for a moment. More than ever, it confirmed my plight. The thesaurus had become the only thing I wanted, my solitary comfort, companion, and confidant. 

As with all transgressions succumbed to, a price was exacted. Even as fleeting thoughts of work returned, I could feel my faculties eroding. Lines from my former favorite sustainer, a poem by Richard Wilbur, mocked from the bulletin board over my desk: “Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind. Something will come to you.”  

A memory surfaced, gray and unreal: I would sit at my desk with the current work frozen on the screen in front of me. When I repeated Wilbur’s words, something always did come—a recollection, image, bodily sensation, phrase, feeling. As I resumed typing, I always knew it would be perfectly right.  

But now, nothing was right, or even barely existed, save this one fascicled object, this too too solid sheaf, sole anchor between two hard covers. 

My thumbs showed telltale index tracks. My speech became slurred and hopelessly erudite. My friends couldn’t understand my conversation and stopped calling.

I dragged around the house in an old bathrobe. If hunger intruded, I grabbed whatever sat moldering in the refrigerator, intent only on keeping crumbs off the sacred treasury pages. My clothes and hair remained unwashed, and when I was forced from the house to relieve the overstuffed mailbox, the neighbors muttered words I couldn’t even find in the thesaurus. 

And then one night I had a dream.

In some barren, prehistoric wasteland, I wandered among rocks and caves. Suddenly, thundering toward me galloped a gigantic thesaurus. Its signatures flapped ferociously; its spine stood stiff in verbivorous rage. From all its thumb indentations belched streams of fiery phonemes.

I gasped and quaked in semi-colonous fear. 

The beast stopped short before me, reared up on its binding, and bellowed:                                                   

I am Thesaurus Rex, King of all Compendia. Have you never read the word propriety? Or decorum, fitness, seemliness, appropriateness? Have you never exercised moderation, mean, measure, self-discipline, self-control, forbearance, temperance, or restraint?

I stood petrified, bug-eyed and mute.

It continued:

By your flagrant index abuse, you have forfeited all your vocabular rights. Therefore, you are now a subject under my headings. From this  moment on, your every word must await my command. If you disobey  in the least article, conjunction, or preposition, you will be guilty of original synonym.  

I cowered and trembled, uncontrollably dribbling adjectivia. As I strained to vow repentance, my throat constricted. I couldn’t even stammer out a prefix.  

Heart pounding, I bolted awake, dripping with sweat.      I jumped out of bed, washed, dressed, ate a full breakfast, and left the house at dawn. It was time to sign myself into AA—Antonyms Anonymous.

Noelle Sterne

Author, editor, writing coach, workshop leader, and academic mentor and nag, I have published over 600 stories, essays, writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, and occasional poems in literary and academic print and online venues. Eons ago, I published a children’s book of original dinosaur riddles (HarperCollins), in print for 18 years. More recently, my handbook to assist doctoral candidates is based on my professional academic practice (PhD, Columbia University): Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Psychological Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). In my spiritual self-help book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), I draw examples from my academic consulting and other aspects of life to support readers in reaching their lifelong yearnings. Continuing with my own, I am draft-deep in my third novel, with more clogging my files. Website: Trust Your Life Now.