Discombobulate and the Thesaurus

I found myself using the word discombobulated several times recently, understandable in this age of pandemic/COVID-19. It was a word my father, also an English teacher and scholar, would use. After writing the recent post on wordsmiths and lexicographers, I was curious to turn to dictionaries, as well as thesauruses, to explore the meaning and origin of the word.

Discombobulated has been traced to the late 19th century US American English. It is both the past tense and past participle of discombobulate, which has been ascribed an earlier origin by the Oxford dictionaries. Merriam-webster.com on the other hand cites 1863 as the date of the first use of discombobulated and 1879 for discombobulate.

Variously described as an Americanism, as a colloquialism, as informal, as humorous, and even as whimsical, discombobulated experienced a sharp rise in use from 1950 through 2010 (oxforddictionaries.com). And though the forms of the word exist as the base verb discombobulate and the adjective form discombobulating, the form discombobulated seems to be the most common one used.

As the definition, most dictionaries give confused and disconcerted, with a few also providing upset or disoriented as possible meanings.

Here are examples of the various forms of the word used in sentences:

But you’ve also probably noticed that oversleeping can make you feel discombobulated …— Christopher Bergland (merriam-webster.com)

There are also three words which people give me all the time which they are convinced are local vernacular: bamboozle, kafuffle and discombobulate. (cambridge.org)

If it has been an unsettling season for all NFL players, it has been absolutely discombobulating for the Raiders … — Ron Fimrite (merriam-webster.com)

Discombobulate appears in both larger desk dictionaries, like Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language College Edition which contains over 140,000 words, and also in paperback dictionaries, like The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (based on Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which contains over 75,000 words. Despite both works using the name Webster in their titles, it is the Merriam-Webster company and its publications that have a direct legal link to American lexicographer Noah Webster, as discussed in the previous post.

Webster’s New World Dictionary uses the lexicographer’s name in its title, but it is unrelated to the Merriam-Webster dictionaries (or company) as are many dictionaries, such as Random House’s Webster’s Unabridged, which use the name Webster as a generic name for any American English dictionary. Indeed, although there were unauthorized reprints, as well as revisions of Noah Webster’s different editions, the copyright on his works expired over time so that they entered the public domain and the use of his material and his name became unrestrained. Two interesting facts about Webster’s New World Dictionary (now published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) are that it is well-known for its etymology (the origin and development of words) and that it is the official desk dictionary of the Associated Press, the United Press International, and many newspapers, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.

Dictionaries vs Thesauruses

Although discombobulate appears in print dictionaries, hardcover desk and paperback versions, it does not appear in the print thesauruses I consulted, as well as in dictionaries of usage – except in one case that uses it as a comparison for unkempt, but not as its own entry (Garner’s 806). This brings us to a discussion of the difference between dictionaries and thesauruses or thesauri. (Both terms are plural forms of the word and their use equally divided.)

As we saw in our previous post, a dictionary is a collection of words along with their definition, meaning (denotations and connotations), and a description of usage. On the other hand, a thesaurus presents words as “word families,” listing their synonyms, either alphabetically or conceptually, and usually without explaining their meanings or usage. A useful example is the paperback The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, mentioned above, that was published as a 3-piece Merriam-Webster’s Everyday Language Reference Set. In addition to the dictionary, this reference resource contains The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, and Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder.

The purpose of the Vocabulary Builder is self-explanatory: to add words to a person’s permanent working vocabulary. Merriam-Webster’s goal here is also to teach the 200 of the most useful classical word-building roots or stems, usually Greek and Latin ones, which are the source of most of the words in English language. (Germanic languages are a third source.) We saw in our history of the English language post that these words were added after the fall of the Roman Empire and came from learning, religion, science, and exploration. As a self-help or study guide, Merriam-Webster’s Vocabulary Builder even contains quizzes at the end of sections to aid in the learning and retention of new words.

On the other hand, the purpose of a thesaurus is to help the writer to find more suitable words and avoid the repetition of terms. Selecting the right word in writing is important in conveying the meaning and purpose of a composition. In my editing and teaching work, I often distinguish between the right word or the wrong word. This is slightly different from the error of wrong word which is the first of the Top Twenty Errors discussed in an early blog post. Of course, a wrong word could be the result of spellcheck missing a homonym or auto-correcting to a different word, but wrong word can also mean is this the best word, the most suitable word, what I like to mark on the papers I’m reviewing as word choice.

Probably one of the most famous works for finding appropriate and interesting vocabulary is Roget’s Thesaurus. A widely used English-language reference work, it was created in 1805 by Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869), a British physician, natural theologian and lexicographer. The original list was a classed catalogue of words on a small scale created for his own self-study, but when it was released in1852 to the public, it contained 15,000 words.

While many think of a thesaurus as a collection of synonyms and antonyms, Joshua Kendall of merriam-webster.com calls Roget’s “a two-for-one”: it combines “both a book of synonyms and a topic dictionary (a compendium of thematically arranged concepts).” Kendall also says it is “essentially a reverse dictionary. With a dictionary, the user looks up a word to find its meaning. With Roget’s, the user start with an idea and then keeps flipping through the book until he finds the word that best expresses it.” Just as the poet Emily Dickinson is said to have used Webster’s 1844 edition as her source of vocabulary, the poet Sylvia Plath considered Roget’s her essential vocabulary book. (Roget’s is updated regularly to include contemporary terms, but the new editions remain true to the original classifications established by its author.)

Print vs Online Thesauruses

Interesting, the word discombobulated does not appear in some print thesauruses, including The Merriam-Webster Thesaurus, part of the 3-piece Everyday Language Reference Set mentioned earlier. (Like the Vocabulary Builder, this work states in the Preface that its purpose is “for those who want to enlarge their vocabularies and learn more about the rich variety of the English language.”)

However, a number of quality dictionaries are now available online, recognizing the increasingly electronic nature of work, as well as the expense of printed versions of these resources. Indeed, in the e-book version of Roget’s, made available free through the Guttenberg Project, discombobulate appears an entry corresponding with derangement.

As mentioned above, many online dictionaries include synonyms or link to a companion thesaurus. For discombobulated, and its base verb form discombobulate, there are more than 50 synonyms listed. So if I want to be less informal and more precise, I could say that rather than being discombobulated, I could say that I’m befuddled (mentally confused) or mystified (mental uncertainty) or confounded (faced with difficulty or uncertainty about what to say, think, or do). During this pandemic, all three apply, so my use of discombobulated is both comprehensive and comforting as it connects to my personal roots.

(Some material derived or adapted from merriam-webster.com on discombobulate, on discombobulated; oxforddictionaries.com on discombobulated, on discombobulate; cambridge.org; Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language College Edition; Random House’s Webster’s Unabridged; Garner’s Modern American Usage; Merriam-Webster’s Everyday Language Reference Set; Joshua Kendall on Roget’s; Guttenberg Project and its entry on derangement.)

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