A very un-English English expert

Historical Notes
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The Independent Culture
TO MOST of us the name Roget suggests a book - a collection of words arranged according to theme and known as a thesaurus. However, this puts the cart before the horse, since the book is called after its original compiler, Dr Peter Mark Roget.

Roget's work, first published in 1852, made a significant contribution to English-language usage but the average user of his work knows very little about Roget the man. In this respect he is completely different from another historical figure who helped to define and shape the language, the 18th-century lexicographer, Dr Samuel Johnson, author of A Dictionary of the English Language. Partly because of the highly subjective, and often amusing, definitions in his dictionary and partly because of the zeal of his biographer, James Boswell, we are aware of several of Johnson's bons mots and anecdotes. In the case of Roget we are not so fortunate.

What we do know is that the publication of his great linguistic work was undertaken in his retirement years, he was born in 1773 and the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was published in 1852. The basic book had, however, been formed long ago when, as a young lecturer, he began to make lists of related words with a view to improving his delivery.

It was not on any aspect of language that Roget was lecturing. One of the surprising things about him is that, although he is today best remembered for his contribution to our linguistic knowledge, he was by profession a doctor of medicine and a scientist and extremely distinguished as both of these. To his contemporaries he was noted for the publication Animal and Vegetable Physiology, Considered with Reference to Natural Theology, a work long since faded into obscurity.

There is irony in the fact that it was a scientist and not a language specialist who has brought us such a useful linguistic work, one which has guided so many writers successfully past word blocks. I doubt if any language specialist has performed a comparable service to the scientific world.

Not surprising, though, that it was a scientist who was responsible for the Thesaurus since it is based on a sense of order and structure that is more usually found in those with a scientific bent than in the rest of us. In his scientific, mathematical and medical work Roget was used to marshalling facts and imposing order on them. In his Thesaurus he did the same with language.

The early beginnings of what was to become Roget's Thesaurus were for Roget's own use. In the preface to the first edition he writes that 50 years before the completed Thesaurus first saw light of day he had "completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale" and had done so "conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies".

To what extent the young Roget was deficient in language skills I am not in a position to judge. Perhaps he was being modest but perhaps he did indeed find that he lacked the ready skill with words that he had with facts and numbers.

There is more irony in relation to Roget and his Thesaurus. It is that this man who has made such a huge contribution to the English language was markedly un-English in his ancestry. His father was a Genevan pastor who came to London to live and his mother's grandfather was a French Huguenot who had sought refuge in Britain. Roget was brought up in the French Protestant community - perhaps this contributed to his determination to perfect his mastery of the English language.

Whatever the reason we are grateful to this determination since it resulted in such a masterpiece.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the editor of `Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases' (Penguin, pounds 14.99)

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