Never Trust A Thesaurus

The thesaurus is an integral part of a writer’s toolbox. Whether it’s the one programmed into our computers, online, or a book on our desks, we need them like we need water, air, and chocolate…and cats. But they are not to be trusted. They are, after all, tools, not sentient beings who can judge which nuance of smell we actually want when looking up the word. Not only is getting the right nuance important, it’s interesting to know how such a nuance came into being.

So let’s take a few alternates for the word, smell as it pertains to the function and perception of the olfactory organs in our noses. Aroma, reek, fragrance, odor, scent, stench, bouquet, perfume, stink. All of these words come up as alternates for smell, but each one has a slightly different definition. Using a word effectively, whether striking that exact imagery, or purposely turning it on its head, means knowing that definition.

Latin cognates:

aroma: generally a pleasant smell, easily distinguished and equally pervasive, spreading around its source.

odor: a clearly recognizable smell, normally issuing from a single source, as often pleasant as unpleasant.

French cognates:

fragrance: a pleasant, sweet, delicate smell

scent: a distinctive smell that can be pleasant or unpleasant; also refers to the trail left by the characteristic smell of an animal.

perfume: a pleasant smell, more intense than a fragrance; also, a smell so strong that it becomes overwhelming.

bouquet: a delicate smell, often pertaining to wine.

Old English/Germanic cognates:

stench: a strong, foul, sickening smell; always used negatively.

stink:  a strong, sharp, and highly unpleasant smell.

reek: a strong, offensive smell

Obvious differences, right? But look closer at where these words came from. Do you notice anything else?

English was a tri-lingual language. It grew up Saxon/French/Latin. Words used in the sciences can usually be traced back to Latin. Words used in the arts, culinary and otherwise, are usually borrowed from French. The meaner language of the commoner usually derives from the Germanic branch of the family. There was a hierarchy back when England was speaking three languages, the Latin being the high speech of scholars, French being the language of the royal court and higher society, and English being the language of commoners. Note the nuances of the above words–is there not a “higher” meaning to the French and Latin cognates? Even the word smell itself, the most common of all the above, is Old English (perhaps Old Dutch) in nature.

Would you, as an English speaker, say, “I love the aroma of coffee,” or, “I love the smell of coffee”? Most times, we’d say smell, because saying aroma seems almost pretentious. As writers however, we get to play around with words. The old man’s fragrance can be the stuff of legends, because that’s taking the actual meaning and poking a little fun. And while we generally  wouldn’t say we love the aroma of coffee, we might write that the coffee’s aroma permeated the bakery.

Such fun, words.


Filed under Writing is Life

6 responses to “Never Trust A Thesaurus

  1. For me, the thesaurus isn’t for finding new and wonderful ways to abuse my readers’ patience–but for finding the exact word that I know I’m missing. If that makes any sense.


    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Perfect sense. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an “off” word provided by a writer who wanted a fancier way of saying something.


  2. One of the easiest ways to spot plagiarism in a student’s paper is the poor use of a thesaurus. I immediately begin figuring out what word the student thought they meant and then googling phrases with that word in it. Always amazing. But you’re right–words are the most fun ever.


  3. When you get to be a biddy, the thesaurus is a life-saver for finding that word that you know exists if only it hadn’t leaked out of your brain an hour ago. Ah, there it is. Thank you, Roget!

    Liked by 1 person

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