Courtesy photo | Metro Creative Connection

My old book, "100,000 Synonyms and Antonyms," by Samuel Fallows, lists words I’ve never heard of, making it impractical as a modern thesaurus, but fun to peruse. 

Many of the words I do know don't list the synonyms I'd use in their stead.  For example, when I say the word compunction, I mean guilt, yet this book omits that ugly Anglo-Saxon word from its list of synonyms, providing more eloquent words like: remorse, penitence, regret and sorrow.  It actually changes my definition of the word compunction, making the guilty person more affected by their transgression than I was giving them credit. 

When this book was published, communication was more intimate, yet the ability to express oneself in a scholarly manner and with beautiful handwriting was as important as good table manners. It's ironic that today, with easy access to online vocabulary aids, our every flippant, off-the-cuff thought is broadcast to millions — often without checking spelling or grammar — and these missives of our verbal vacuity (yeah, I found that in the book) remain in cyberspace as a permanent chronicle of society's increasing lack of vocabulary. 

We've grown lax (loose and vague, yes, but the old book also lists incoherent and unprincipled — ouch!) in expressing ourselves, generalizing and homogenizing our deeper feelings and thoughts into shallow, less discriminate terms. In my laziness, I rely on simple, go-to words to take the place of more complex ideas.  

I don't recall the word that best expresses my feeling, so I spit out "weird," "stupid," "amazing" or "beautiful," when I could use my brain, Google, an online thesaurus, right-click "synonym," or the vocabulary Mr. Scheuerman taught us in high school English — to say something is "eccentric," "obtuse," "astonishing" or "resplendent.”

I'm amazed — oops, no bewildered, perhaps I’m even astounded — by the change in definition of some of the words since this book was published. For instance, I think of egregious as bad — as in “an egregious sin or act,” so I looked it up. The old book’s synonyms for egregious include: remarkable, peculiar, excellent and consummate.  How had this word gone from meaning one thing to something so different today?  

One would be wise not to rely solely upon synonyms listed in a 134-year-old book, as a word might mean something entirely different today. You would not want to compliment someone on their “egregious” singing voice or culinary skills.

Synonyms to voluptuous in this old book include: sensual, luxurious, self-indulgent, licentious [Incidentally, this Victorian-era volume uses licentious as a synonym for many words!] and highly pleasant. As an artist, when I hear or say the word voluptuous, I think of alluring Reubenesque women, but I surmise the day is near when the general meaning for voluptuous will simply be "big boobs." This illustrates not only the detriment of our language but also our thinking — talk about licentious!

It's sad — rather, wretched — that I have easy access to so many words to more adequately express myself, yet I rely on so few. I might keep this aged volume handy, and refer to its yellowed, loosely bound pages to build my vocabulary and broaden my mind.  While I’m at it, I may try to brush up on my table manners.

Dayton artist Sonja Caywood shares a story about an art experience in her column this week.

Recommended for you