A strange stench hung in the air when I arrived, like decomposing flesh. This was new. I lingered near one of the temples, where pungent incense from spices and tree resin helped cover the stink. As I observed the flow of pedestrians throughout the afternoon, they seemed agitated…

Agitated, agitated… hmmmm, is there a better word for that? Something more evocative or specific, something that would capture the emotion of this crowd of people in my head?

The writing life

I do a lot of writing, both fiction and non-fiction. When writing I like to eliminate distractions and put my full concentration onto the task. So I listen to instrumental music loud enough to drown out household noises and I have an older laptop that only has a few things installed so I’m not looking at all my other projects while focused on writing.

My browser knows exactly where to go when I open a new tab and type “thes”. It opens thesaurus.com. I entered my search term and…

Wait a second. What is going on here?

Only five synonyms for “agitated” and one of the strongest matches is “aroused”? Something’s fishy here, and it’s not just the stench coming from the river in my story.

I tried a few other words, with similar scant results. (And no, I didn’t look up a synonym for “few” or “limited” to come up with “scant” — my brain is a garden full of such lovely bits and bobs from the English language.) Look at the results for “tense”. Seriously? There’s got to be better alternatives to “tense” than these six.

A cry for help

What a dilemma! A conundrum! A quandary! If thesaurus.com has been drained of words, where can an author go for what they need?

Thank goodness I have a solid writing community to turn to when faced with such predicaments. I may have been a little flustered–er, agitated, upset, perturbed, and keyed up when I posted to this Facebook group. All caps is not my usual MO.

I was not the only one who noticed the disconcerting decline of thesaurus.com. Thinking about it now, in context with the surge of AI tools over the past year, I wonder whether the dearth of good matches for some words is related to an incomplete database or a poorly trained AI? Regardless of the reasons, I’m not using thesaurus.com anymore! My writer peeps came through, and I’ve distilled their responses down to three excellent suggestions.

Synonym assistance for authors – top recommended resources

Here’s my list, but if you don’t see your favorite then please comment below and I’ll consider it adding it. I’ve learned the value of commenter contributions since posting about how to reconcile credit card charges with your Amazon transactions — so many great updates and additions to that page came from visitor comments!

Thesaurus solution #1 – Merriam-Webster.com (my fave)

I actually subscribe to Merriam-Webster’s word of the day newsletter. It’s a fun way to refresh my brain with words I don’t usually think about, and to occasionally learn something new. Just this month I learned that “enervate” actually means to drain energy, not to charge it up. Editors who ought to know better have published enervate in the wrong context so often that it’s a common misuse now. This is how words lose their meanings, people!

I’ve used Merriam-Webster’s website in the past, and I don’t recall how or why I switched to thesaurus.com. Maybe I changed browsers and when I did a search for a thesaurus it didn’t remember my history with MW and thesaurus.com popped up instead. Well, I’m heading back to Merriam-Webster now, if they’ll have me. The interface is intuitive, there’s more useful words than ads, and I’m just aquiver, atingle, aflutter, and all in a dither just thinking about having so many words to choose from!

Thesaurus recommendation #2 – WordHippo.com

Several writer friends said they loved WordHippo. I admit, I’m more of a traditional gal, and Merriam-Webster works just fine for me, thanks. I don’t need a hot pink river horse telling me what words to use. The nerve! Did you know that the hippopotamus is the deadliest large land animal on the planet? They kill an average of 500 people a year. And a group of hippos is called a bloat. That’s a lot of negative press for a thesaurus mascot to overcome.

Oh, come on, I’m KIDDING. WordHippo looks useful enough, and their rhymes page could be handy for writing poetry, song lyrics, and even greeting cards.

They also have a handy Scrabble word finder — although personally, I feel like that’s cheating… unless you’re just using it to learn new solutions to a common problem like having six vowels and one consonant (or six consonants and one vowel!).

There’s one big stumbling block in the WordHippo user interface, though. It’s bad enough that I literally thought their website was broken or didn’t work in Firefox (my primary browser of choice). But when the behavior was the same in Google Chrome, I finally realized what was happening wasn’t a glitch. It was poor UI design (at least for desktop computer use).

After looking up synonyms for “agitated”, I clicked on other menu items like the definition, rhymes, etc. Each time the page updated with the results related to “agitated”. But when I clicked on their navigation tabs for Translations, Find Words, Word Forms, and Pronunciation, nothing happened. Or rather, the main part of the page didn’t update with anything new. It still displayed the page for how to use “agitated” in a sentence.

What actually happened when I clicked that Translations tab was that a different field appeared at the very top of the page. My brain translated that activity as “a new ad probably displayed up there” and ignored it.

But that thin strip at the very top of the page is where you’d enter the word you want to translate, locate, conjugate, or enunciate. On a mobile phone, the function of the interface makes a lot more sense. But it doesn’t allow me to link to a specific page URL for those functions, so you’ll have to browse to them yourself from the main page.

#3 – Printed book thesaurus backup in case of the apocalypse or dystopian censorship

Okay, so some of my friends make a physical book thesaurus their primary one and not a backup. They keep it on the bookshelf right next to their tinfoil hat. Now, I’m not saying they’re more paranoid or conservative than I am–no, no, of course not. I understand where they’re coming from. Language is to be treasured, preserved, and not allowed to devolve into meaningless backward slang. I mean, who wants to live in a world where “bad”, “sick”, and “wicked” are all used to indicate something is excellent, admirable, and praiseworthy? Oh, wait… #toosoon #toolate

Other benefits of a physical book: you don’t need wifi or cell service to access it. Take your book with you to the cabin on the Oregon coast where you have your writing retreats.

While this is somewhat compelling as a concept, I admit I’d rather have the instant gratification (and lighter backpack) of a digital search on my smartphone or laptop. Online thesaurus databases are so much bigger than what’s reasonable and cost-effective to print in a book. And while I actively resist promoting some types of slang, I do like having search results that offer the slang options for when I need modern phrases for contemporary dialogue.

Conclusion

Well, I hope I haven’t offended any hippo lovers or tinfoil fashion friends. My comments are intended for the sake of humor! If you have a favorite thesaurus or word helper website that isn’t featured here, please tell me all about it in the comments!


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