This past Wednesday was National Thesaurus Day, and I completely failed to notice. How embarrassing. Upsetting. Awkward. Disappointing. Discomforting. Discomfiting. Disconcerting. Downright distressing.
In my defense, it can be difficult to keep track of all the dozens if not hundreds of official days and weeks and months of appreciation and awareness—so much so that a National Days-and-Weeks-of-Appreciation Awareness Month might not be a bad idea. Incidentally, yesterday (January 21) was “Squirrel Appreciation Day,”* while yesterday and today (January 21-22)—yes, both days—are “Bald Eagle Appreciation Days,” which I believe refers to our country’s avian emblem as opposed to, say, Donovan McNabb.**
*Not to be confused with “Squirrel Appreciation Month”—that’s October. Duh.
**Who, anyway, would only qualify on “Bald Former Eagle Day” (even though he is, currently, still bald).
But National Thesaurus Day, fittingly enough, celebrates the birthday of Peter Mark Roget (the “t” in Roget, of course, is silent, just like in Colbert). Born in London on January 18, 1779, Roget was a physician, scientist, and theologian, but would become famous for the book of synonyms he published in 1852. His was a long but not so happy life—his mother, sister, and daughter had severe mental problems, his father and wife died young, and a beloved uncle committed suicide in his arms—and his penchant for making lists of words may have been motivated by his own severe depression, according to The Man Who Made Lists, a 2008 biography by Joshua Kendall. Roget compiled words obsessively for decades and after it was first published continued to refine his thesaurus through another 25 editions before his death at the age of 90.
According to Kendall, many well-known writers have declared their debt to Roget, including Peter Pan’s creator, J.M. Barrie. In homage, he put a copy of the Thesaurus in Captain Hook’s compartment so he could assert: “The man is not wholly evil—he has a Thesaurus in his cabin.” Poet Sylvia Plath once referred to herself as “Roget’s Strumpet” out of respect for the word choices he gave her.
However, not everyone “celebrates” National Thesaurus Day: the British author and journalist Simon Winchester, writing in the The Atlantic, contends that Roget’s masterpiece “proved an ultimate and unwitting disservice to the language,” by allowing writers with more limited vocabularies to “look it up” rather than “think it out.”
Still, the thesaurus (or thesaurus.com)—and the noble (if neurotic) idea behind it, that there is always another, better word—is indispensible for those of us who endeavor to express ourselves ever more freshly and precisely (and read work by those who do).
So even though National Thesaurus Day has come and gone for another year, let us rededicate ourselves each day to thinking about what we write and say. Instead of falling back on the tried and true (you know, clichés like “tried and true”), is there a better way? Think it out.
Or, you know, look it up.
Victor Wishna’s work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Baltimore Sun, the New York Post, NPR, KCMetropolis.org, and others. His writing and editing services firm, The Vital Word helps find the right words for nonprofit, corporate, and individual clients. Follow him on Twitter: @vwishna.