At a Loss for Words


When I started writing, I thought if I used a thesaurus, I was cheating. A bit like using Bisto to make the gravy. But I was younger then, and my brain was chock-full of words. Opinions differ on the matter, but many will agree with Steven King’s assertion: ‘Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.’ That was indeed my position until language attrition set in.

Nice as it is to be bilingual, there’s a downside. Anyone massively exposed to a second language knows what I mean. You don’t forget your mother tongue, but unless you use them regularly, the words don’t come so easily anymore. They’re still there, but hiding away like bugs that are scared of the light. Coaxing them out can take a while: you know there’s a word you want, but it just won’t come. It’s called the TOT state (tip of the tongue) and it’s frustrating. I realised how far the attrition had gone when people in Britain started saying to me, ‘You speak very good English.’

So now I use a thesaurus. When the word I’ve come up with isn’t quite right, either in meaning or in rhythm, I look for alternatives. And joyfully browse for a while, rediscovering words that had slipped away into the shadows of my mind: fusty, arrant, bray, chary, nosh, drub, noisome, pudgy – the list could go on. Not that I’d want necessarily to use those words myself – there’s a definite limit to the number of less common words you want to pepper your writing with. Nosh or pudgy, certainly, if the context is right. I’d think twice, though, before writing arrant or noisome. But whether I use them or not it’s always nice to get back in touch with friends I’ve not seen for years.