Earlier this month, the Times Higher Education reported on the practice of "Roget-ing," in which plagiarism is disguised by swapping synonyms found in Roget's Thesaurus for words used in the copied paper. Though untraceable, the resulting language ranges from not quite right to cataclysmically horrible.

The random swaps often make the papers completely incomprehensible, as when the phrase "the current big players and new service providers are looking to supply more powerful personalised services," was not-so-cleverly disguised as "common mature musicians [and] recent liturgy providers are looking to satisfy…Herculean personalised liturgies." 

The Times goes on to amuse us with "other new phrases coined via the splendidly inept process."

"Bequest mazes", a rough translation of "legacy networks", [is] a term used to describe web networks using outdated computer formats.

To "stay ahead of the competition" became the quaint "to tarry fore of the conflict", while "new market leaders" was turned into "modern store guides".

The favourite Rogetism [of Chris Sadler, principal lecturer in business information systems at Middlesex University] is a rendering of the phrase "left behind", which was marvellously converted into "sinister buttocks".

"This was a sad business for me and especially [for] my student, but I do think 'sinister buttocks' deserves a prize," said Mr Sadler, who entered the student mistake for this year’s Times Higher Education exam howlers.

Reading these substitutions, once can begin to understand poet Billy Collins's assertion that "there is no/such thing as a synonym," or Stephen King's advice to writers: "throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket." But in fact, a thesaurus can be a useful and frankly fascinating tool for a writer or anyone else interested in language, provided it's used as a means of gaining a deeper understanding of a word's place in the lexicon rather than a quick, apples-to-apples fix.

In a piece for Lapham's Quarterly in which he explores the history of the first thesaurus as well as the capabilities of its online descendants, our own lexicographer Ben Zimmer takes on Collins's assertion that "there is no/such thing as a synonym" and the logical extension of that idea: that "the whole enterprise of constructing a thesaurus is predicated on a fiction."

It is only a fiction if one holds fast to the notion that synonyms must be exactly equivalent in their meaning, usage, and connotation. Of course, under this strict view, there will never be any “perfect” synonyms. No word does exactly the job of another. In the words of the linguist Roy Harris, “If we believe there are instances where two expressions cannot be differentiated in respect of meaning, we must be deceiving ourselves.”

But the synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically more like siblings that share a striking resemblance. “Brotherly” and “fraternal,” for instance. Or “sisterly” and “sororal.” They may correspond well enough in meaning, but that should not imply that one can always be substituted for another. Consulting a thesaurus to find these closely related sets of words is only the first step for a writer looking for le mot juste: the peculiar individuality of each would-be synonym must then be carefully judged. Mark Twain knew the perils of relying on the family resemblance of words: “Use the right word,” he wrote, “not its second cousin.” ...
What, then, should we expect a thesaurus to do for us? Simply allow us to replace one word with a near equivalent in a mechanical fashion? Such arid utilitarianism does little justice to the various ways that a thesaurus can shed light on language and encourage lexical explorations. A thesaurus, as we have seen, can mine rich usage data from textual corpora to paint a picture of how words are used in actual context. It can create new spatial metaphors for semantic connections. Or it can add a historical dimension to trace how words related to a given concept have ebbed and flowed over the centuries. These are but some of the directions that the twenty-first-century thesaurus is headed in, directions unforeseen by Roget in his time. Though we can be sure that he would have deplored the mindlessness of the word processor’s search-and-replace shortcuts, I feel equally confident that Roget would have appreciated the ways that new technologies can deepen our appreciation of the lexicon’s richness in all of its interwoven splendor.