The Well-Spoken Thesaurus

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An interview with Tom Heehler 

[Editor's Note: Tom Heehler has written his first book, The Well-Spoken Thesaurus. So we caught up with Tom for some verbal one-on-one at his home in Orlando, Florida.]

Sourcebooks: Why is it so important to be well-spoken?
Tom Heehler: To quote from my book, when you write and speak using eloquent language, two very curious things happen. One, your audience cannot help but to associate that eloquent language with power. And two, they then associate that power with you. It's as if by the mere use of eloquent language, writers and speakers are able to acquire and project power.

Think about that for a moment. I'm a former truck driver with no professional writing credits. Yet somehow I was able to convince more than one publisher to pay me to write a book, a book that presumes to suggest how others should go about writing and speaking. That's fairly unheard of. Let's face it; I'm not William Safire. I'm nobody to a publisher. So how does that happen? It happens by virtue of the words at my command.

What's more, when you instill in someone a reverence for words -- which is what I think The Well-Spoken Thesaurus does -- you instill a reverence for language and education writ large. And I'll tell you how this happens. In the same way that the physical act of smiling, in and of itself, can make you feel happy, the physical act of speaking eloquently can make you feel studious. Research suggests a causal link between the words we use and the feelings we have. And when your intelligence becomes a feeling, an emotion if you will, it causes you to become more intellectually confident and curious. You begin to crave the feeling you get when you walk into a Barnes and Noble, a museum, or an art gallery, and so you begin to acquire more raw knowledge for the sake of raw knowledge, which helps you to become more creative.

So it's not about projecting an image of intelligence; it's about adopting an attitude of intelligence, an attitude that rejects know-nothingism (the notion that "common sense" can compensate for want of an education). It's an attitude that scorns the use of expletives in every other sentence, an attitude that is suspicious of Ebonics, and suspicious of adults who rely almost entirely on child-like speech patterns in the name of minimalism. If you're David Foster Wallace, I suppose you can get away with that sort of thing. But for the rest of us, if that's all you've got, it's just a little sad. These so-called minimalists who think it's pretentious to call bushes shaped like animals 'topiary' just don't get it. They are the ones pointing and laughing at our proverbial nerd lugging books home from the local library.

SB: In your view, what causes this contempt for what we think of as well-spoken language, and being studious in general? Why is it so uncool in some communities to be seen as studious?
TH: There are several reasons. With respect to inner-city black communities, it's a function of the resentment harbored for past and present sins, sins committed by the white establishment. Elevated language is often associated with the higher reaches of that establishment, and so you don't have to be a linguistics professor to figure that one out. But prejudice against words, or prejudice against advanced verbal ability in general, has been around since the dawn of humankind. I call this type of prejudice, wordism. In ancient Sparta for instance, wordism ruled the day. Their use of words was rather, well, spartan. Words were for sissies, and if you know anything about Sparta, sissies were held in very low regard, which is a little ironic by today's standards, given what we know of the typical Spartan male's bisexual proclivities. Nevertheless, in Sparta you were expected to be a man of action, not a man of words. God help you if you ever used a word like 'proclivities.' Such words were for girls. Even today we still hear echoes of this same prejudice, as in the expression, "Real men don't major in literature."

So here's the deal. When a culture is dismissive of advanced verbal ability, the size of the average vocabulary within that culture is thereby limited. When you limit vocabulary, you limit the density of grey matter in the brains of adolescents. And when you limit the density of grey matter in the brains of adolescents, you run the risk of consigning your culture to a generational failure loop of teepees and mud huts. Each dumbed-down generation produces an equally dumbed-down generation, and so on, and so on. This may explain why the Parthenon -- among countless other creative achievements --was built not in Sparta, but just a rock-throw and a spit down the road, in Athens, where, as it just so happens, words were cool, and therefore vocabularies were comparatively enormous. The Athenians were not genetically superior to the Spartans, just attitudinally superior. They didn't have more pack animals; they had more word animals. Attitude is everything. And when it comes to vocabulary, size matters.

SB: But didn't the Spartans conquer the Athenians in the Peloponnesian War?
TH: Sure they did. And the Huns did their fair share of conquering, as did the Cherokee, the Vikings, Al Capone, and so on. You can get by for a while on brute force alone, but eventually your wordism will catch up with you because it will inhibit vocabulary. And what do the Spartans or the Huns or the Vikings have to show for all their erstwhile military might and their self-imposed limited vocabularies? Show me what they created; don't show me what they destroyed.

SB: How is it that a former truck driver thinks up the idea for The Well-Spoken Thesaurus?
TH: In between my trucking and landscaping jobs I was going to night school at Harvard, where it was borne in on me just how poorly spoken I truly was. I would enter into various discussions with classmates and instructors, and the words did not come easily to me. I mean, I can produce intelligent thoughts, that isn't the problem. The problem is, how do I translate those thoughts into intelligent words that are reflective of who I am and what I mean. And because there were no books on which I could rely, I decided to take matters into my own hands. Whenever I would happen upon a particularly eloquent word or phrase, I would write it down and pair that with what I would have said. Rinse and repeat 5000 times; you've got yourself a book.

SB: How do you respond to the charge that your book is prescriptive, that it presumes to tell us what we should say, and what we should not say. In other words, what makes you the ultimate authority on American diction?
TH: First, I would ask my readers not to judge the book by its cover. The words and phrases I suggest as replacements are precisely that: suggestions. They require a measure of discretion on the part of the reader, as do all words in every thesaurus. Word choice, as we all know, is a function of personal taste, context, and audience.

Second, I don't consider myself an authority so much as a curator of sorts. I collect words like some people collect butterflies. The distinction being, my butterflies are not pinned to a wall under glass. They're alive. You can touch them and take them home and use them in your resumes and your corporate pitches and your college essays and your speeches, even your casual conversations. These are words from the likes of Hemingway, Atwood, Steinbeck, Churchill, and Kennedy's Sorenson. They are the authorities. I am but the messenger.

SB: So what's the message?
TH: The message is that anyone can become well-spoken within a matter of days, that eloquence is no longer a function of pedigree, who your parents are, or what Ivy League school you got into. Eloquence is a simple matter of replacing common everyday words with well-spoken alternatives.

What's more, to become well-spoken you needn't replace every word you use or even many of the words you use. Just one or two replacements per paragraph is usually all it takes. In fact, the last thing you want to do is over-egg the pudding. If you cast yourself as some kind of William F. Buckley wannabe, you'll only expose yourself to ridicule, and rightly so. This is what I mean when I say to speak like an academic without sounding like one. Barack Obama is a master at this. He knows how to adopt a scholarly air of authority, but without resorting to pretentious scholarly words. Instead he uses ordinary words, but in an extraordinary way.

SB:Give us an example of an ordinary word being used in an extraordinary way.
TH: Let's say you've just written the phrase, "it makes me want more" as part of a rough draft, and now the time has come to polish it up a bit. If you were to look up the word 'makes' in a conventional thesaurus, you would find a couple dozen synonyms like 'causes' or 'forces,' none of which help you to improve your wording in any substantive way. The expressions "it causes me to want more" or "it forces me to want more" -- they don't elevate the diction, do they? However, when you look up the word 'makes' in The Well-Spoken Thesaurus, you get the word 'leaves.' So how would the word 'leaves' help you to elevate your diction in this case? ... Exactly -- "it leaves me wanting more." So we've taken an ordinary word like 'leaves,' and we've used it in an extraordinary way to enhance our prose.

So here's what's really interesting. 'Leaves' is not synonymous with 'makes,' but it is rhetorically related. No other thesaurus accounts for this rhetorical relationship; The Well-Spoken Thesaurus does. So when you look up a word in my book, you're not looking for a corresponding word that is similar (or synonym), you are looking for a corresponding word that is rhetorically related in some way, a word that allows you to speak more powerfully. I call these words powernyms. 'Leaves' is a powernym of 'makes.'

SB: Aside from the extensive list of powernyms in the book, you also feature a section called "Rhetorical Form and Design" in which you highlight specific techniques to more well-spoken speech and prose. Tell us about some of them.
TH: Well, there's the technique of omission. So instead of "I never get tired of," you would say "I never tire of." Just omit the word 'get.' It's easy, right? So you try one. I'm going to give you a sentence, and I want you to use simple omission to render it eloquent. So here's your sentence: "I have a taste for all things that are classical." The answer is, "I have a taste for all things classical."

Then there's the technique of euphemism. So in place of "you lie," one would say that he was "less than forthcoming."

Then there's the technique of omitting conjunctions with negatives. So instead of "and I don't think," you would say "nor do I think." Can you hear the difference? Note that you don't have to be an English professor to distinguish between the eloquent and the not so eloquent. That's because eloquent words are inherently so. We just know they're eloquent. It's in our rhetorical DNA.