The Penultimate Word

5 Reference Books You Should Have If You Write ANYTHING

#4 – Dictionary of Synonyms

As I was writing an article the other day, I needed a word to describe something stinky.  Not just your average wet-dog stench, but a hold-your-nose-or-lose-your-lunch stench, such as the smell of once live mollusks that have been forgotten in a car and left to bake in the hot summer sun for a week. (Don’t ask.) So, I went to my bookcase and pulled out my Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms

More than a thesaurus, “Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms” delves into the nuances of synonyms.Unlike a thesaurus, a dictionary of synonyms helps you understand the nuances of similar words. For example, under stinking I was directed to look under malodorous where I found the following synonyms:

  • Malodorous – a general term for an unpleasant smell (malodorous flowers).
  • Stinking – the familiar term of something peculiarly offensive (stinking outhouse).
  • Fetid – the literary or technical term for stinking (fetid weed).
  • Noisome – describes something that emits a poisonously or unwholesomely offensive odor (noisome varnish).
  • Putrid – associated with the decomposition of organic matter (putrid road-kill).
  • Rank – applies to a smell that is strong and unpleasant, but not necessarily disgusting (the rank smell of a sunflower).
  • Rancid – usually suggests an offensive taste as well as an offensive smell (rancid tortilla chips).
  • Fusty – suggests a lack of ventilation and describes a smell resulting from prolonged uncleanliness or an accumulation of dust (fusty dorm room).
  • Musty – similar to fusty, but has a stronger implication of moldiness or dampness (musty cellar).

For my composition, putrid worked best.

A dictionary of synonyms is a valuable resource for adding clarity and precision to your writing. You have to be careful, however, when selecting your reference book. Most books claiming to be a dictionary of synonyms are nothing more than a thesaurus. As a matter of fact, the only book I’ve found that delves into the nuances of synonyms is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms: a Dictionary of Discriminated Synonyms with Antonyms and Analogous and Contrasted Words. This book can’t be beat when you need to know which stinking word to use.


5 Reference Books You Should Have If You Write ANYTHING

#1 Dictionary
#2 Thesaurus
#3 Style Guide
#5 Grammar Book


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