Blog Excerpts

"Sinister Buttocks" and the Dangers of Thesaurus Flipping

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"Bequest mazes", a rough translation of "legacy networks", [is] a term used to describe web networks using outdated computer formats.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

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Comments from our users:

Friday August 29th, 9:36 AM
Comment by: John Y.
The comments about the usefulness of a thesaurus seem to imply that the writer's original choice of word or phrase is the optimal one and the thesaurus can suggest only alternatives that are less than optimal. I turn to a thesaurus not when I need a "perfect" synonym, but when the words I am using seem to fall short and I know there is a combination that I cannot recall, but that would be better suited to my exact meaning or intent. I might add, this problem of inadequate unassisted recall of the exact right word gets worse with advancing age. I know the right word, but I need help to recall it. I will leave my thesaurus right next to the dictionary and be happy I have it.
Friday August 29th, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Toni
I love my thesaurus. I still use my Roget's International Thesaurus, Fourth Edition, although I do have newer editions. I will investigate most, if not all, senses of the word on my mind. In other words, I do not have tunnel vision when I open my thesaurus. It can be painstaking. The results often provide an "a ha" moment that is not necessarily present when investigating one sense of the word.
Friday August 29th, 10:39 AM
Comment by: jenna R. (jersey city, NJ)
Ditto, John Jay. From childhood exploring the dictionary and the thesaurus has been a favorite pastime.What I love about the visual thesaurus is that it so resembles my childhood experience of "swimming" in the language and finding pathways of connection between words in space and time.
Friday August 29th, 12:46 PM
Comment by: Susan C. (Irvine, CA)
Thank you Jenna R. I thought I was the only person who loved reading both the dictionary and the thesaurus from childhood on. I wonder if there's anyone else who almost physically senses the heft of words and tastes their flavor by rolling them around on the tongue in the manner of the characters in the Phantom Tollbooth.
Friday August 29th, 7:55 PM
Comment by: Jeff F. (CA)
I concur with and relate to the comments thus far. In my formative years, I would often pick up a dictionary, desirous to add more words to my repertoire.
I've always had a penchant for word knowledge, vocabulary, and etymology, delighting in articulating them and how they roll off the tongue. They have become my trusted companions.

I bought a desktop dictionary yesterday at Barnes and Noble and know it will bring enjoyment and knowledge acquired for years to come.
Friday August 29th, 10:38 PM
Comment by: Narayana R. (India)
"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."
Couldn't agree more.
Narayana R (India)
Sunday August 31st, 7:43 AM
Comment by: srinivasan (India)
I never thought that one day I would read about how thesaurus can be used for plagiarism.I have a Roget thesaurus but it never struck me that I could use it for achieving some ulterior motives.As it has been rightly pointed out that thesaurus can be read with relish as a fascinating journey towards maze of words.Nevertheless I will continue to look for synonyms to know and understand the words but will not misuse or abuse it.
And that is my promise.
Monday September 1st, 12:34 PM
Comment by: Alison T. (Charlotte, NC)
And I thought "sinister buttocks" was a synonym for "bad ass."
Monday September 1st, 1:56 PM
Comment by: Philip W.
I use a thesaurus to help me find the BEST word to use, not necessarily a replacement word.
Monday September 1st, 5:19 PM
Comment by: Jeff F. (CA)
Alison T., that is an astute connotation of "sinister buttocks". It gave me a good laugh, and according to what I learned from the book mentioned below, yours and Mr. Sadler's student's definition is correct. :)

I recently purchased an awesome book titled "Verbal Advantage" authored by Charles Harrington Elster, that is an apropos source to use concomitant with Vocabulary.com to enrich one's vocabulary knowledge.

In one of the instructive explanations on word derivations, the Latin "dexter" and "sinister" were compared. "Dexter" means on the right side, skillful. From "dexter" we inherit the word "dexterous". The Latin "sinister" means left, on the left side, and also wrong, evil, unfavorable, adverse, the meaning of the English word "sinister" today. One can easily see the positive and negative connotations between the two, which the author points out, saying that Latin is one language that favors "righties" and disdains "lefties". (Some of the info discussed above acquired from p.101 of aforementioned book.)
I thought this was an interesting tidbit of knowledge to pass on.
Tuesday September 2nd, 10:07 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
Readers of Jonathan Safran Foer's novel Everything Is Illuminated will recall that the narrator, whose English comes mainly from books, is constantly dressing up his language with "elegant" synonyms that might have been cribbed from the thesaurus. The results are amusing, often delightful, and reveal a devilish sense of humor.
Wednesday September 3rd, 12:02 PM
Comment by: Helen C. B.
I recall reading once, in a supposedly authoritative source (the introduction to the OED, perhaps?), that the English language has only two exact synonyms: gorse and furze. The assertion is unprovable, but serves well as a conversation starter. . . or stopper.

I agree that a thesaurus's best functions are as a aid to memory, when one cannot quite recall a word, and as a tutor in the marvelous intricacies of the language. But even as a practical aid, I find the thesaurus is often my second choice, after Funk and Wagnall's Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. Although it supplies fewer words than Roget's does, it indicates the shades of meaning or proper context for synonyms, as well as supplying the appropriate prepositions. Much more helpful for students than Roget's.
Friday September 5th, 6:06 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
A comment to the original Times Higher Education article suggests that the student, especially the one who substituted "sinister buttocks" for "left behind," was using translation software. This makes a lot of sense to me, as you can generate amusing content almost instantly by using the translate feature on foreign language sites. For example, it turns out that the Swedish word for "Finn" ("finne") can also mean pimple, hence the mysterious headline: "Mad pimple" houseboat parked in Clear River.

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