Terrance Aldon Shaw's The Erotic Writer's Thesaurus, 2018.
I used to love reading encyclopedias as a kid, back in the pre-internet days. Usually I would look up something specific that I was interested in, then after reading the entry, I’d either think of something else starting with the same letter, or I’d just turn the page, or flip through until I found something worth stopping on. I read some articles over and over. I had a cousin who told me she had read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, and later knowing what would be her future educational successes, I’ve had no reason to doubt her. Inspired, I tried to take on the same project with my Britannica Junior set, but after getting midway through the C’s, I decided to revert to my need-based/wandering technique.
I do miss encyclopedias. That practice was a considerable part of my intellectual development, and is one now largely lost along with rotary-dial phones in this age of google and time wasted on social media. But it was fun, learning random new things. I was reminded of just how fun, while perusing my new copy of Terrance Aldon Shaw’s The Erotic Writer’s Thesaurus (with notes on usage).
With no story to dissect, character development to track, or subtext to analyze; nor intellectual theses concerning erotica put forth (beyond those involved in specific uses of language), this will be a shorter review than most on this site. But I want to do what I can to bring attention to a considerable work of scholarship and, more importantly, usefulness, created by Shaw, eroticist and reviewer extraordinaire at Erotica for the Big Brain.
This is, as its title spells out, a resource intended for writers of erotica who care about their craft. I use my Roget’s Thesaurus every time I sit down to write, as does Mr. Shaw, according to the introduction (although I do not know if he uses the Roget’s.) While the number of words included in his book is of course smaller than a thesaurus created for the entire language, those sources tend to overlook what is considered by many the “obscene”—and writers of erotica, even those concerned with craft and intelligence and precision, often require that perfect term at their fingertips, the word that’s on the tip of their tongue but just out of mental reach. A massive project was born.
It’s not just for variety that this volume was compiled. While it’s true that many writers rely on tired and overused terminology—although it has long been argued, accurately, that overreaching for the sake of variation can lead to ridiculously purple prose—one of Shaw’s main intentions was to help those writing historical romance/erotica to use terms and idioms that were correct and accurate for the age in which the stories take place. Nothing takes the reader out of the narrative of historical fiction (in any genre) faster than inappropriate, contemporary language.
Shaw was thorough. For any bodily term (and in erotica, there is an emphasis on the body), no matter what the level of obscenity/vulgarity, options are provided up and down the clinical-to-shocking scale; historical examples from different periods of history are offered, as well as translations across many foreign languages. Some of them are ridiculous, but then people have always invented ridiculous names for body parts and actions.
Not all of the synonyms in the book are for the naughtier parts of the body, of course; not even the non-naughty parts, nor the more profane verbs that we writers of smut so need. The greatest percentage of terminology referenced in this book are words that radiate away from the hardcore center of the genre outward, terms that romance and erotica writers need no less:
Edge. Dishevel. Dishonest. Checkmate. Black Widow. Anxiety. Slovenly (why not? Think about it), Strict, Taut, Ultimate, Vindictive, Wave, X, Yielding, Zulu Style.
Ass. In his introduction, Shaw informs us of his dislike for “ass” (the word, anyway), which, while I understand his point of view given the examples of inaccurately worded historical stories he had to read that gave rise (so to speak) to this very thesaurus, I happen to think is a very fine word indeed. Ass. As a writer, I do see the need to vary the terminology to prevent repetitiveness, but really—that hard “a”, followed by the hiss of not one but two s’s…is there a better, more fitting word to have beaten with a single-tail whip in your novel?
One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the Notes on Usage that follows the thesaurus, which the author himself calls “Mr. Shaw’s Literary Pet Peeves”. Some you may agree with, some not; that’s how I felt anyway, but that is the point. Just the mere discussion of certain terms—what he perceives as a biased unfairness in the usage of “Vanilla”; the complex reactions people have to “Moist”—is wonderful food for thought. I would love to read an expanded version of this section, a monthly column and discussion on Shaw’s site.
Back to my early encounters with encyclopedias: what I like most about this book is the pleasure in browsing it. Not only finding new and unfamiliar words, but new interpretations of words I know well—or thought I did. This book is simply fun to flip through, in no particular order, as fun as it is helpful when it is needed.
My one problem with the print version is the very thing that makes it so useful: its size. I keep my little Roget’s Thesaurus right next to my laptop; when I’m stuck or even think I might be stuck I grab it without looking, flip through its small (7” x 4”) pages with a thumb, held in mid-air above the keyboard. The Erotic Writer’s Thesaurus is massive—11” x 8½” and nearly 1¼” thick—and also quite heavy. This is because it has many, many words in it, not because of any large print or anything. But it requires space to open, to consult. And my crowded, messy desk has very little available space. This is actually a flaw in myself, not the book, now that I think about it.
There is a digital version that I could just leave open as I type; in fact I’m considering that, and perhaps you could as well. The print version is, however, luscious and perfect for the exploratory browsing I am so fond of.
In any case, consider buying this book, if you are a writer of erotica or erotic romance, or if you are just interested in language, especially the language of Desire:
DESIRE (2) (n) appetite; ardor; craving; fancy; hankering; hope; hunger; longing; lust; relish; thirst; want; wanting; yearn; yearning; yen
The Erotic Writer’s Thesaurus is available here on Amazon.