The purpose of a thesaurus is to help us to find synonyms; that is, words that have exactly or nearly the same meaning as another. But in truth, there are very few exact synonyms. The vast majority of synonyms, while generally related, each have very distinct and important nuances of meaning. A thesaurus alone doesn’t help us to appreciate those critical distinctions. In fact, it tends to minimize and obscure those differences by creating the impression that all of the synonyms are interchangeable.
The proper use of a thesaurus is to help us think of the right word, the better word, the exactly perfect word to precisely convey a particular meaning. The harmful and more common use of a thesaurus is to simply pick a different synonym so that we don’t repeat the same word twice in a paragraph. The good use of a thesaurus expands the richness of the language. The bad use of a thesaurus compresses the language, destroying its richness and subtlety of meaning.
So a thesaurus should be used with tremendous caution. For example, when a young author looks up the word “supple” in a thesaurus, they may conclude that they can freely substitute it with agile or limber or lithe or flexible or spry. But each of these words has its own uniquely distinct and important meaning. To ignore these differences and misuse a synonym is frankly a terrible waste and diminishes the language tangibly.
One book that I’ve held on to for decades is “Choose the Right Word” by S.I. Hayakawa (found here). This is an essential reference for anyone who cares about language and writing. In this book the authors compare and contrast groups of synonyms to help you understand how they are different and therefore how and when to best use them. It is one reference book that you really can just pick up and read cover to cover for fun.
In fact, “Choose the Right Word” is not only mandatory for writers, but for readers as well. If the richness of meaning is lost on the reader, it is like listening to music through crappy speakers. The reader misses out on much of the brilliant nuance that makes the writing worth reading.
This morning I was thinking of a possible blog article on morals and ethics. So as soon as I got out of the shower I naturally consulted “Choose the Right Word.” According to Hayakawa, the words moral and ethical were once nearly synonymous but have recently diverged in meaning. Moral is now generally used in a religious context while ethical is usually used in a more secular context. We talk about the morals of a priest or saint but the ethics of a lawyer or legislator. Moreover, morals has come to mean “personal conduct as set by an external code or standard” while ethics refers to “just and fair dealings with other people, not by the application of an external standard but by a pragmatic consideration of all aspects of a situation in light of experience.”
Or to put it more succinctly, “moral can often be taken to mean private, codified, rigid and a priori; ethical to mean public, improvisatory, flexible, and a posteriori.” As the authors point out we can “agree despite differing moral values on ethical ways to work together.”
The discussion then contrasts some related words. Upright suggests moral conviction while decent suggests an ethical concern for others. Virtuous suggests a personal life free from moral blemish while honorable suggests someone who deals with others in a decent and ethical manner.
These distinctions, like all such distinctions, are critical to gaining a nuanced understanding of the world. Even though these words are often thought of as synonymous, there are good reasons why conservatives and religious people are quite comfortable talking about morals but are wary of ethics. And there are likewise good reasons why liberals and nones are frightened by the word moral but are very happy to talk about ethics. Whether we are talking about morals and ethics or anything else, we must first understand the powerful nuances inherent in the language we employ. That is the only way to ensure that we are speaking to, and not talking past, each other to gain real understanding.
Ideas cannot be simplified into a few generic synonyms compressed down into a convenient thesaurus and a rich language is all we have to express them.