I am writing the first draft of the Artisan Modern book during the Distance of 2020. I am sheltered in a place that is not mine. It is full of objects resonant with childhood, and others utterly foreign. There is far too much color and clutter here for me. But also treasure.
Perusing the library, I saw a small gold-edged book, slightly larger than my childhood bible. I picked it up. It was both stiffer and lighter than the bible. And, as it turned out, revelatory.
Like most writers, I refer regularly to a thesaurus. There are two use-cases. One is seeking an alternative to a word I have repeated. The second, far more common, case is grasping for a word that I know, but can’t find. I may have an aesthetic perception of the word’s rhythm or length, or the first letter.
Most of us now use an online thesaurus. For me, this is invariably maddening. Thesaurus.com seems dumbed-down – what is known in the word industry as “abridged”. It seems to offer a restricted selection; the word I want is rarely there. In frustration, I have tried other online thesauri, like the promising visualthesaurus.com but found them to be even further emaciated. Cute presentation, but not thorough.
The little “bible” in my hand turned out to be a 1953 printing of the 1923 Roget’s Treasury of Words, edited by O. Sylvester Mawson, assisted by Katharine Aldrich Whiting, and subsequently retitled Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus.
Since I have been writing since before the interweb, this was not the first time I used a book-form thesaurus. The Roget’s I used to use was organized like a dictionary, with all the words in alphabetical order. Each entry included a collection of options far less abridged than thesaurus.com, but far from always reliably bringing to life the ghost word in my mind. The book was heavy, garishly colored and covered with promotional text, as most modern books are. I got no pleasure from this object.
The Treasury, on the other hand, is a delight. It sits gracefully in company of my cellphone and notebook, flashing only its lovely gold-edges.
I appreciate that I must care gently for this book while handling it. When using it, I have to hold it carefully. Turn the pages gently. There is so much pleasure in how this book feels in the hand. I notice that objects that require care and attention bring me to “be present” far easier than meditation.
The revelation is that this is an entirely different book than what I had before. The only alphabetical presentation is an index in the back. I start there with the word I’m seeking a synonym for. I’m given one or two numbers. These are not page numbers; they are entry numbers. The bulk of the book presents those entries. When I arrive to the entry, I notice that the entry before and after are also related. This is because the entries are organized by meaning.
I’ll take you through an example. I seek a word to capture Artisans’ business decisions. But I want a word that captures more than decisions, something with larger scope. In the index, ‘decision’ refers me to entries 480, 604, and 620. Arriving to 480 I find the entry is judgment. I realize that the headers of the facing pages tell me that ‘judgment’ is part of the category ‘intellect’ and the sub-category ‘formation of ideas’. I realize that this whole section is about assessment, and that’s not what I’m after. I proceed to entry 604, ‘resolution’. Now I am in the category ‘volition’, subcategory ‘individual volition’. I realize that volition is on the right track; I’m talking about agency and action, not thought. Already I learn something about what I’m trying to express.
Fascinated by how this book, unlike any other thesaurus, takes me further into meaning, rather than just exchanging words like commodities, I am curious about the rest of the categories. Page xiii presents the “Plan of Classification”. I am charmed to learn that meaning and its words can be tidily organized into just 6 categories:
I. Abstract Relations
Every time I look up a word in the Treasury I feel that my understanding of language and of my own sought meaning deepens.
This little bible tells me that we have lost meaning and we have even an impoverished sense of what meaning is. Further, we have even lost efficiencies. Recall that when Mr. Mawson and Ms. Whiting created the manuscript for the Treasury in 1923, they had to type out one linear text. They needed to write and type it properly. This was then used by typesetters to laboriously prepare plates to print the book. There is an economy to the classificatory system.
While an alphabetical thesaurus would require one entry for every word, listing afterward all of its synonyms and then relisting those same words in one another’s entries, the Treasury lists each word only a few times, according to its place in the classification. For example, a word who has about 20 synonyms would be listed 20 times in an alphabetical thesaurus. In the treasury, a word who has three meanings would be listed only 4 times (once in the index and once in each relevant entry). Imagine the saving of space! This also explains why modern linear thesauri became “abridged”, and this abridgement was transferred to the interweb, where it wasn’t necessary.
All of this, starting in the index, browsing, starting over in the index when I realized my meaning was off, paging, holding gently takes far more time. But I get tremendous pleasure from the whole experience. I feel more agentic, rather than helpless and resentful that something is being withheld from me. I have the whole treasure in my hand, to hunt through. And I am a caretaker and steward of this precious object.