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What You Can Learn About Writing From A Hundred Year Old Thesaurus

Crabb’s English Synonymes: Revised Edition (1917)

A physical thesaurus is a rare sight in our digital world, let alone one a hundred years old. Yet that’s what a coworker handed me the other day saying, “You have to read this introduction!”

She handed me Crabb’s English Synonymes: Revised Edition, published in 1917. Wondering who reads a thesaurus, I skeptically read the two page introduction written by John H. Finley. In it, I discovered a treasure-trove of writing advice.

1: Expand Your Vocabulary

How many live in abject verbal poverty, when the riches of the race are within their reach!

There are over two-billion words in the Oxford English Corpus. Countless words left forgotten and unused. Worse still, scores of words misused. As writers, we must not be among those living in abject verbal poverty!

“Abject verbal poverty” is such an interesting use of language. With billions of words available, Finley could have made his point in an unlimited number of ways. Yet he chose these three words. We must read and expand our vocabularies. The right words are out there, waiting to be strung together.

2: Be Truthful and Accurate

We have fought for free speech. Having that, we have greater need of accurate speech — speech that will say what one means to say when one desires to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. For there be three classes of men who do not tell the truth, except by accident: first, those who do not know it; second, those who wish not to tell it; and third, those who do not know how to tell it. Those who do not know the meanings of words are in the third category even if they escape the other two. They have no accurate measure for giving or receiving those intangible things of the mind’s exchange or the spirit’s commerce. They are as one who has not gotten beyond the “avoirdupois” table, or as one who has but a peck of measure in an apothecary shop.

Today, writing and publishing is not limited to the educated and wealthy. Anyone can write. Easier still, we can highlight a word and google synonyms to add flavor and spice to any sentence. But what about truth? What about accuracy?

It’s interesting that Finley’s words 100 years ago hold true in today’s era of alternative facts. Writers are storytellers, but those who endeavor to speak truth should do so in an accurate and honest way. As storytellers, we mustn’t be people who only speak truth by accident.

The difference between writing and great writing is emotion. A writer’s heart should be evident through their words. Each reader is invited to experience the writer’s truth. As writers, we must be sure our facts are accurate. Once a writer loses trust with an audience, it is an impossible thing to regain.

3. Know Your Power

There comes often to me the remark of the Captain in the crucifixion scene of “The Terrible Meek.” […] And the Captain answered: “Words, words; there is great power in words. All the things that ever get done in the world, good or bad, are done by words.”

Just a few words can send a country to war while others can captivate an entire generation. No matter the story we tell, our words can motivate and incite others. We must be careful with the words we use, publishing only when we have chosen the right ones and verified their truth.

Our language has evolved a lot in the last hundred years, yet John H. Finley’s introduction speaks an accurate truth to the power of words. Let’s learn from his words to help shape and guide our writing. Maybe a hundred years from now someone will stumble upon your words and be inspired to teach a new generation of writers.