Our Shrinking Language

by Pari

Am I Cassandra? I wonder. I find myself worrying in broad strokes about our culture. The questions I ask are big. Even the ones that appear trite feel huge to me. None have easy answers.

For example: What impact do thesauri in word processing programs have on contemporary language?

Yeah, I know. Weird. But I really do think about these things.

Consider this:

In the MS Word thesaurus, the word mystery yields these choices: (n.) secrecy, anonymity, obscurity, ambiguity, inscrutability, vagueness. (adj.) unknown, anonymous, unidentified. (n.) whodunit, detective novel, thriller, crime novel.

Without getting into the question of whether "mystery" is ever really an adjective, I will say that the above alternatives are perfectly serviceable. There's nothing wrong with any of them.

However, when I look up mystery in my old Roget's International Thesaurus (circa 1977), something very different happens.

I'm forced to think.

I can imagine Dr. Peter Mark Roget sitting across from me. He's wearing those square glasses that Benjamin Franklin wore; they're halfway down his nose. He puts down his quill and shakes his head. "Mystery? What do you mean, Mrs. Taichert? Are you considering enigma or fiction? Are you referring to occultism or perplexity? Inexplicability or wonderfulness? Please clarify that I might offer assistance."

Merely by looking at the options in the book's index, my way of thinking about the word has expanded. I go to the enigma entry and find: enigma, mystery, puzzle, puzzlement, Chinese puzzle, crossword puzzle, jigsaw puzzle. Hmmm. Some of those might work. But there's more: problem, puzzling or baffling problem. I like the word baffling. Haven't thought of it in years. On I continue to question, question mark, vexed or perplexed question . . . Oh, I like this: mind-boggler, floorer or stumper, nut to crack, hard or tough nut to crack; tough proposition. How cool are those?!

Right below the enigma entry is one for riddle, conundrum, charade, rebus, logogriph .  . .

What the hell is a logogriph?

So then I look up to the larger idea category and see that it's Unintelligibility and I start to think about that in relation to mysteries and the mysterious.


All that thinking: the consideration and discarding of irrelevant words; the grouping of ideas and expansion of their meanings; the stumbling into different concepts I'd never thought about in relation to the word "mystery;" the meeting of old friends — words I'd forgotten I liked; the curiosity kindled by words I'd never encountered before . . .

This was no mere collection of synonyms; it was an intellectual exercise. After those few minutes of searching, I felt enriched. I grew and made connections that stimulated my mind and sparked creativity.

I wonder how many people take the time to do this anymore? I know that most kids who compose on their computers don't bother with what I think of as a real thesaurus. The quick approximation is good enough for them. I can tell this is happening in popular literature as well. Words that are a little different stick out; they're becoming obsolete.

Is it because they're anachronistic? Or is it simply because they don't pop up in our computer programs?

I don't know. These questions nag at me.

Are we bankrupting our vocabulary, our language, because of convenience? What price will we pay for this laziness? 

What do you think?
Do you have a favorite word that seems obsolete now?
Is there a word you'd like to bring back into usage?
Am I looking for problems where there are none?

51 thoughts on “Our Shrinking Language

  1. Stephen D. Rogers

    I’ve purchased several electronic “word books” for times when I’m away from my office, and am always disappointed by the small size of the databases. I would think they could put MORE words in the non-printed version, not less.

    The smaller the pool, the more we keep bumping into the same words.

  2. billie

    I am a dictionary nut. And there is a thesaurus sitting on top of every desk in our house. I LOVE looking something up and then getting sidetracked to other categories.

    I also love the old Brewer’s Dictionaries, and every time I go into a used bookstore (not so much as I used to, I’m sorry to say) I find the reference section to see if there are any old volumes I don’t have.

    I often look things up in other languages too – French, Italian, Spanish, Latin – just to see what I find.

    That’s the one thing missing now that I’m writing downstairs. My chair in the garret is right by a bookcase, and the entire shelf at my right arm’s reach has all my dictionaries and reference books on it.

  3. Kathleen

    It’s a good question.

    Personally, I do use the thesauri in my word processor or the one on Bartleby because, usually, I’m just suffering from a brain freeze and need a jolt.

    However, your post has me thinking that I’ll move my thesaurus closer to my desk.

  4. Tammy Cravit

    I don’t think you’re tilting at windmills, Pari. There’s no question that people seem to be becoming sloppier with their use of language and punctuation. For example, there’s a sports memorabilia store in my local mall called “Sports Card Fantasy’s”. Quite honestly, it drives me batty.

    But I think the problem goes beyond mere laziness. In my view, a large part of the problem has been the progressive erosion of real teaching in our schools, what with all this focus on standardized test scores nowadays. When I was in school, teachers could actually teach, could feed the passions they ignited in their students, could take half a day to give us a tour of a dictionary or thesaurus. But those things aren’t on the standardized tests, so nobody much seems to teach them anymore. Despite my best efforts, my daughter’s still shaky on the use of a dictionary, and it’s not because she (or I) don’t want her to learn the skill. It’s because there are only so many hours in the day, and the schools seem to feel they have “more important” things to teach.

    The other problem, of course, is the widespread use of text messaging, which teaches our young people to value speed over expressiveness. But that’s a different rant for another day…

    Sometimes I do despair for the future of our young people.

  5. pari

    Stephen,That’s the problem. The choices are so limited and they don’t take us to that second step of discovery.

    Now, maybe it’s just that I’m getting older and have forgotten my vocab from those SAT days — but I adore using my printed thesaurus because I always, always find something interesting.

  6. pari

    Billie,May I come spend at week in your garret? That sounds like paradise.

    I have my dictionary and thesaurus on one of the side leaves of my old wooden desk. I turn to the thesaurus more often.

    I don’t know about the Brewer’s Dictionaries though. If you have a moment, please tell us about them.

  7. pari

    Kathleen,I’ve never used Bartleby. Do you find it helpful?

    I DO use the online programs when I hit a wall or a brain freeze and they work for that. I just think we’ve all become too dependent on them because of convenience.

  8. pari

    Tammy,I know you’re on to something.

    I could rant for quite a while about standardized testing and the change I’ve seen in my children’s elementary school as a result.

    To have standards is a wonderful thing. But the way NCLB has been administered and funded is a travesty.

    I know little about texting and my one daughter who has a cell phone doesn’t have the capability to do it on her machine.

    But I have seen the erosion of spelling. The example you give of the store in your town is so horrid you’ve just got to laugh.

  9. Gayle Carline

    I do use my dictionary and my Thesaurus from time to time. I especially like to curl up with them when I’ve witnessed the language being mangled, whether it’s a sign in a store or a headline on the internet.

    Of the words I’d like to see come back, where to begin? I’ve been told that I’m the only person who “scampers” anywhere, but it seems like such a small and insignificant verb, how could I be alone in its usage? And “tootles” (to move or proceed in a leisurely way) – no one tootles around anymore. I’d like to see more tootling.

  10. Stephen Blackmoore

    I tend to use the word processor’s thesaurus only becaue it keeps me from having to step away from a thought for too long. But I agree, they’re limited in their use. So many good words out there that are just dying to be used.

    Ululate, for example. Now that’s a damn fine word. Right up there with defenestration.

  11. Dana King

    I split the difference on thesaurus usage: I usually use an online thesaurus, but not the one that comes with Word. I go to thesaurus.com. Since I’m usually either with brain freeze, or just looking to change up when something has been mentioned half a dozen times already, that often fine.

    However, when I really NEED the right word and I don’t see it, Roget comes out. It’s always there.

    I think a lot of people were inclined to be lazy about these things in the past, too, but that laziness either kept them from getting immortalzied in print, or was edited out. Now it seems to slip throuhg more often, in part because we’re used to reading hastily dashed off emails and text messages, and, at the book level, because editing has become more of a luxury than a requirement.

  12. Louise Ure

    I’ve long bemoaned the changes in language usage in this country.

    But just this morning Judy Greber and I decided that we’d like to bring back the use of the word TARNATION. it fits my mood today.

  13. pari

    Gayle,I do use the word scampers, though not often.

    And “tootles?” Oh, that’s a wonderful word. I didn’t know it could be used as a verb.

    Thank you for broadening my world today!

  14. pari

    Stephen B.,I use those wordprocessing thesauri in the same way.

    Ululate — I had to look that one up to make sure I knew what it was. I remember one of my belly dancing teachers using it decades ago. We ululated while we danced.

    I have heard “defenestration” in more recent memory.

  15. pari

    Dana,You bring up an interesting point about the ease with which anyone’s writing now has the potential for broad dissemination.

    I’m going to have to think about that. Intuitively it feels like it’s absolutely linked to what I was writing about today.

    The idea of editing being a luxury is frightening, isn’t it? I watch my children dash off papers as if they’re masterpieces and spend quite a bit of time talking with them about editing and showing them some ways to do it.

    As a kid that impulse to believe your writing is magnificent in first draft is endearing.

    Adults shouldn’t be accorded the same indulgence.

  16. pari

    “Tarnation” is a great and quite civilized word. I looked it up and realize how many times some of my characters would say it if I’d only been aware of it earlier.

    I’d always heard it in the context of “Where in tarnation?” or “What in tarnation?” but it has a larger and more colorful range.

    Thank you.

  17. Kaye Barley

    Love this topic, Pari!

    I mourn the loss of my own vocabulary, which seems to be shrinking as I get older, and the words that I do remember seem to get lost as they try to find their way to my tongue.

    I confess to using the on-line thesaurus too much for the sake of convenience, and am making a promise to myself right now to have a “real” one closer by, both here at work and at home from now on.

    A word I miss? Copacetic. An aunt of mine used to use that word a lot, and it just seemed to fit her.”Mornin’, auntie – how are you?” “Copacetic, my dear, copacetic.”Isn’t that a fun word? As is tarnation – and I’m betting I can use that one today!!

  18. Cornelia Read

    Great post, Pari!

    I don’t use a hard-copy Thesaurus anymore, preferring Bartleby.com. If I type in a word I get references to it from Roget, The American Heritage Dictionary (a good one), The Columbia Encyclopedia, and a number of other fine resource works. Just looking at that first page of brief citations often tells me a lot more about the word than I ever knew, and I can follow up with the full text from any of those sources. It’s invaluable, and I don’t need a dozen books on my desk. I’ve never used Word’s thesaurus. I would trust that about as far as I can throw spellcheck.

  19. Kait Nolan

    No! I think you’re absolutely right. I also wonder what effect instant messaging and texting are having on our vocabularies. It takes too long in “instant communication” to use what my mother would call a “50 cent word”. And don’t get me started on spelling… One word that I think is becoming somewhat anachronistic…besotted. I absolutely love this word. It had a particular shade of meaning that “crazy about” or many other similar words or phrases don’t.

    While I don’t tend to use a hard-copy thesaurus either (I live at a computer), I never use the one in Word. It’s too limiting. I tend to go to thesaurus.com, which pulls from several different thesauri.

    And God help me…the grammar check should be stricken from the program. A computer cannot replace a brain. In one memorable love scene I was writing, I said something about the hero cupping the heroine’s breast and Word thought it should be “cut”. God. So does that mean it’s just stupid or are the creators sadists? Hmmmm.

  20. J.T. Ellison

    Pari, how funny. I was just thinking about doing a post on my favorite words. I am the Queen of the Thesaurus; I’ll use whatever ones I can get my hand on at the time. Thesaurus.com used to be great, then they changed a few months back and don’t have the same punch anymore. Bartleby’s is good, but I always turn to my handy-dandy Roget’s. Wikipedia is doing a decent job with some of the etomologies of words too. See http://www.etymonline.com/ too.

    I love to find new, different meanings for words, love an author who spends time to find an alternate meaning. It’s one of the reasons I love Anu Garg’s Word of the Day – today’s was liminal.

    Here are some of my favorites:Defenestration, serendipity, onomatopoeia, callipygian, juxtapose, persnickety, balderdash and kerfuffle. Oh, and codswallop.

  21. pari

    Kaye,I use the word “copacetic” all the time and get many odd looks as a result. But it’s such a fine expression, quite precise.

  22. pari

    Cornelia,I know that there must be thesuari that provide a similar experience of expansion, thought, online.

    It must also be related to comfort level; I’m happier with hardcopy than pixels and binary code.

    I bet our Rob would find a print version of Roget’s as cumbersome as you do.

  23. pari

    Kait,Grammar and spell check should be excised from programs unless you have a degree and know how to use them. 😉

    Again, I refer you to Taylor Mali’s poem “The the impotence of proofreading.”

  24. pari

    I love your words, JT! The only one I didn’t know was “callipygian” and now I do. If anyone is reading these comments, you oughta look it up; you’ll certainly use it.

    BTW: one of my favorite words is “chuffy.” It means “chubby,” but sounds so much happier about it.

  25. Darynda

    I’m like Stephen, I kind of split the difference as well.

    But don’t feel alone, Pari. I’ve thought about the very same thing. I remember being so excited about having a thesaurus at my fingertips, just pressing a button and, voila, synonyms magically cascade across my screen! Then I began using it in earnest, and let me just say, I’ve never fully recovered from the letdown.

    I haven’t tried any of the store-bought computer thesaurus programs yet. I’m very spoiled. I want Roget or Rodale at my fingertips, not Pee-Wee Herman.

  26. pari


    Well what a pleasure to see you here at Murderati!

    “Let down” — yeah, I think that’s part of the experience of using one of those thesauri after you’ve enjoyed the real thing. Kind of like the difference between real chocolate mousse and pudding.

  27. Denese

    Umbrage. My mother-in-law, formerly a very erudite woman (now with Alzheimer’s) would take umbrage at our current seemingly dunder-headed use of the English language.

    Callipygian. Thank you! Great word!

  28. pari

    Denese,”Umbrage” is an underused word. I think many of us, like your MIL, take umbrage at what is happening to our language.

    Just think about it. France even has an academy that monitors what happens to French. Why don’t we in the U.S. care to that extent about what makes us verbally unique?

  29. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Pari

    Wonderful words, all. Personally, I like simple words used in a slightly off-centre way, rather than very long words. I try and limit my use of words that are off the wall, to maintain the flow of the story – but then, I’ve never claimed to be writing high art ;-]

    But, I do slide them in occasionally. Hence I’ve used ‘anosmic’ – to have no sense of smell, ‘oneiric’ – belonging to dreams, and ‘crepitus’ – the sound of fractured bones grating together.

    I’ve been reeling out my favourite odd words and phrases on my ‘Rati posts for a while now, but I still love words like zabernism, hyperglast, deipnosophist, obmutescene and fard.

    I was most disappointed to find out that one of the favourite words from my childhood – ‘wangy’ -was missing from my Chambers dictionary and may well be something we made up. It means something has gone off or rotten, particularly related to fruit. “Don’t eat that banana, it’s gone wangy.”

  30. Cara

    Pari wrote ‘Just think about it. France even has an academy that monitors what happens to French.’Not only do they have the French Word Police but radio police too. For every English song played so must a French one.

  31. pari

    Zoe,I think there are words that are best left in the thesaurus or among those of us who enjoy playing with them — rather than in a story where they don’t belong.

    And I love those that sound just familiar enough NOT to stand out or stop the action.

    “Wangy” is such a great word. Without a definition, you still understand exactly what it means.

  32. pari

    Cara,It’s been so long since I was in France that I had no idea about the radio dictum. Wow. That’s amazing. I remember when I lived in France I thought the French were awfully silly trying to protect their language like that. Now I’m not so sure.

  33. Fran

    I’ve never used “wangy”, but I use “wonky” all the time.

    And at the shop, when I feel the need to vent, I use “piffle”, which makes people smile, and then they laugh when I apologize for using harsh language.

    I love words. Thank you, Pari!

  34. Allison Brennan

    I had never thought about this before. (But I’m not known for my deep thinking.) I think there are actually two issues here: language and writing. Language as a whole has been dumbed down, no question, and Tammy is right. There is no demand of students to excel. They are taught to the lowest common denominator. Students with solid B averages are put in remedial math and English in college because they don’t have high school basics down. We’re so worried about self-esteem (you can’t flunk Johnny; you can’t hold Jane back, they’ll be ruined for life) that we forget these kids are the future doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers and parents.

    On the thesaurus part . . . I’ll admit 1) I rarely use a physical thesaurus. I can’t take the time to stop what I’m writing to look up a word. 2) I occasionally use the computer thesaurus but usually it’s because a word is on the tip of my tongue and I know what it means, but can’t think of it.

    When I write, I put the first good word that comes to mind on paper, and often I use that word too many times. During revisions, that’s when I’ll go to dictionary.com (my personal favorite) or the Visual Thesaurus (which could be better, but I like the visual display of words. It’s a subscription, though.) I’ll have to check out bartleby.

    But I tend to use simple words. My writing isn’t literary. When I hear my books are an “easy read” I don’t take offense–I write escapism. Hmmm . . . maybe I’m part of the problem with the dumbing down of language.

  35. pari

    Fran,Piffle is a perfect word. It gets the job done in many ways without offense. Quite a trick.

    “Wonky” has real potential too. I’m feeling wonky right now from too little sleep and too much worry about our dog.

  36. pari

    Allison,You bring up excellent points. Thank you.

    I’d like to share one of my own. Loving words and thinking about them has nothing, really, to do with the kinds of writers we are. My books are “entertainments” (as Tony Hillerman would say) rather than “literary fiction” for example. But I take joy in finding the right word, in expressing it in some way that will delight the reader. I don’t think telling the story and considering language is/ought to be mutually exclusive.

    Simple words are beautiful. I’m not looking to complicate by my voyages into the thesaurus; I’m looking to capture exactly what I mean in, perhaps, an interesting and slightly different way.

  37. Fiona

    My youngest son’s new favorite word is “undulate” and he used it twice in his “what-I-did-on-winter-break” essay. He said he likes the way it feels when he says it.

    I think reading widely is better than a thesaurus, but I do resort to Roget at least once a week.

    The dictionary seems to come out every day, at least once.

  38. pari

    Fiona,You’re right that reading widely is the best way to keep words alive and expand our vocabs. But I find myself “reading” the thesaurus sometimes because it’s just so incredibly interesting.

  39. Colin Beveridge

    A German friend of mine described someone as ‘buffled’, a lovely mixture of baffled and puzzled. That’s probably my favourite word just now, although I rarely use it except when asked about my favourite word :o)

  40. B.G. Ritts

    My favorite reference for word discovery is The Word Menu, which was accumulated and developed by Stephen Glazier. You can start with a concept and drill down to specific words.

  41. Jake Nantz

    Pari,Trust me when I say, teachers are just as frustrated as parnts and students with the “No Child Left Untested” program. I don’t focus on words and grammar as much (at the senior level) as I do literary analysis. Still, I am given a very specific list of what works I have to teach, and if there’s time we can squeeze in one or two more. I choose to make time, because the list is woefully inadequate.

    As far as words, I had a kid I just loved my very first year who fell in love with the word “furfuraceous”, despite the fact that he felt it meant fur-bearing rather than the accepted “covered in scaly particles;scurfy.”

    Me? I always liked the sniglets, and my wife and I still use one that my uncle told me. You know those random white feathery particles floating around in the air sometimes? Yep, that’s a pefly (PEFF-lee).:D


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