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.
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?