Thesaurus > Dictionary

Some reference books are better than others. I like a good thesaurus better than a dictionary. A well-made thesaurus helps me boost my vocabulary.

I have a copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus. I also have a couple of dictionaries: Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and a Pocket Oxford Dictionary (The pocket Oxford also has sentimental value with a note “Given to me by Mrs. Ann Porter the nice woman who lives in the flat across the hall in England.” I was visiting my grandparents in London when she gave me the book.)

The Webster’s dictionary is the lesser of the three. Its definitions are merely satisfactory and I don’t expect greatness. I like the Oxford dictionary more. It’s succinct and I usually find something interesting when I open it randomly. It’s not the giant, full Oxford dictionary, but to call it “pocket” is a stretch. My bath robe might have a big enough pocket for it, but fitting it into a pants or shirt pocket is completely impossible.

The thesaurus is much more useful. Mine has two parts. The primary text is organized into topical areas, for example “496: Taste, Tastefulness,” “970: Uncertainty” and “487: Celebration.” Each category is broken into sub-categories of related synonyms. There’s always new phrases to find. “At sixes and sevens” under Uncertainty is a new phrase for me and I like the word “finesse” that I found under Taste.

Finesse is a comforting word. It reminds me of when my parents would play bridge. They would describe a certain situation in the game and call it a finesse. One hazard of a thesaurus is that, when I find a word I don’t know, I can embarrass myself by using it improperly. For example, if I write about a bridge game, first I need to learn what finesse means to a bridge player.

The second half of the thesaurus is a dictionary. Rather than having definitions, this section links to the relevant sub-part of different categories. This dictionary offers different senses of a word. “Worthless” points to categories containing “valueless,” “disadvantageous,” “paltry,” “unworthy,” and “terrible.”

I opened the thesaurus and the word “martyrize” popped up. I had never thought of what the verb form of martyr was. The word looks weird but makes sense. However, it’s not a word I’ll find in the novels I’m reading.

A thesaurus has better rabbit holes than a dictionary.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

The novel The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin has started me on a quest. I’ve reignited in my reading interest. More specifically, reading science fiction. I’m letting the Hugo and Nebula awards help me compose my reading list. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin won the 1970 Hugo and 1969 Nebula awards for best novel.

I obviously hate trees because I’m buying used copies of the books, rather than reading them on my kindle or other ebook format. I’ve found a convenient venue to locate used books at

The Left Hand of Darkness follows an envoy from Ekumen, Genly Ai. Ekumen is a federation of planets connected by near light-speed starships. However, relativity’s time dilation affects travel and trade. Ekumen has developed a long-term perspective because travelers will often return home decades after they left on a mission.

The people living on the aptly named planet Winter (also known as Gethen) are unique because of their fluid gender.  Every person can bear children as well as father them. However, most of the time the individuals are genderless. The effects of this on their culture is complex. On one hand, sexuality and nudity become much less sensitive a topic. Raising children is a more cooperative enterprise with more than the parents responsible. People are hospitable and welcome strangers. It’s challenging to know how to look at them from this more-or-less solid-gendered world. It’s easy for Ai to consider everyone a “he.” When he notices feminine qualities in individuals, he finds it disorienting.

The story describes three different nations. One, Karhide, is hierarchical and like a large confusing family. It is hierarchical and formal. The second, Orgoreyn, is bureaucratic. Its citizens deal with interminable paperwork and passport documents when they travel. However, the bureaucratic culture has work for everyone. The more feudal Karhidish society has strong bonds of mutual aid and generosity. The third culture, the Handarata, is mystical and has a subtle mythology. It is not explored as deeply as the others but seems very Zen-like with contradiction and paradox essential attitudes.

The language of the novel is very clear and descriptive. During a journey over a large glacier, the feelings of fatigue and the difficulty dealing with the murderous cold was striking. At one point, the novel made me actually jump with surprise and emotion. The book’s early chapters do not provide a linear story. Alternating chapters include information from Gethenian mythology and storytelling. This is helps the novel be a little more anthropological so that I had get a better feel for the world.

The Left Hand of Darkness reveals that my native assumptions about gender are not the only way to see things. The Hainish people share strong bonds. There are intrigues and power struggles that Ai has to navigate through. The title is misleading because the book isn’t about a struggle between darkness and light. Instead, it is a testament to endurance and the ability of people to form bonds of trust and honor.