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Prominent writers put in a good word

Oxford may have created the best thesaurus yet

OXFORD AMERICAN WRITER'S THESAURUS, several contributing editors, Oxford University Press, 1,088 pages, $40.

Advertised as the "First Thesaurus for Writers by Writers," the "Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus" is a substantial volume edited by nine prominent writers — including David Auburn, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "Proof"; David Lehman, prominent poet; Francine Prose, an editor at Harper's; Zadie Smith, famous for "White Teeth," a novel that won the Whitbread Award; Simon Winchester, author of "The Professor and the Madman"; Stephen Merritt, a composer; Jean Strouse, biographer of J. P. Morgan; David Foster Wallace, author of "Infinite Jest" and "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men"; and Michael Dirda, senior editor for the Washington Post Book World.

Each writer contributes based on his or her strength — with David Foster Wallace writing on "dysphesia," while Michael Dirda writes on "postmodern."

The editors structured the volume to offer mini-essays on 240 favorite words. Anyone who writes for a living knows how valuable a good thesaurus can be in finding the exact words to express a variety of thoughts — and this book has more than 300,000 synonyms and 10,000 antonyms from which to choose. Arranged alphabetically, it includes example sentences and distinctions from the most commonly used words.

Word spectrums, usage notes and word banks are included to offer as many possible alternative words as possible.

About the word "said," Dirda, writes: "While most writing can be improved by choosing strong and precise nouns, adjectives and verbs, this isn't always so. When reading a novel's dialogue, we should be paying attention to what the characters say, and learn about their feelings through their words. But too many young authors overstress the verbal markers of back-and-forth speech. So we read 'Frank replied' or 'Frank riposted' or even 'Losing his temper, Frank violently expostulated.' Much of the time a careful writer can set up the rhythm of a conversation so that it's always clear who's speaking and with what degree of passion. If more precise identification is needed, a simple 'Frank said' will usually suffice, the weak and common verb scarcely intruding on the give-and-take on the page.

Under the word, "sandwich," 100 different kinds of sandwiches are listed. The same is true for different kinds of rocks, roads and rhetorical devices.

The only drawback to this book is that a person looking up a word may continue reading for another 15 minutes or so just out of interest.

This is probably the best thesaurus yet.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com