Peter Mark Roget: A man of words

Once upon a time, it could prove difficult to put your finger on the, oh... you know... mot juste. Then, 150 years ago, Roget published his Thesaurus. But did this extraordinary book actually improve the way we think?

Paul Vallely
Thursday 27 June 2002 00:00 BST

Suppose I suffered from monologophobia – the obsessive fear of using the same word twice – a condition that that most celebrated of modern editors, Harold Evans, once quipped would lead a sufferer to edit the Bible so that it read: "And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was solar illumination."

And suppose I had already told you a special 150th anniversary edition of Roget's Thesaurus was being published next week. And then suppose I wanted to say the anniversary was of the publication of the previously private list of words compiled by a 19th-century physician called Peter Mark Roget. Only, of course, I couldn't use the word "anniversary" again. So I might type it into my computer and be offered a list of Microsoft-approved potential alternatives. "Anniversary," it would say, "birthday, centenary, bicentenary..."

But then suppose I turned to what Dr Roget in 1852 called his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, classified and arranged so as to facilitate the expression of ideas and to assist in literary compilation. Then I might be offered, under the category "Words Expressing Abstract Relations", in the section on "Time", and under the sub-heading "Recurrent Time", the following lattice of connections: "anniversary, jubilee, centenary; catamenia; courses, menses, menstrual flux; rota, cycle, period, stated time, routine; feast, fast". And that is far from all. There is also a cross-reference – to the category "Words Relating to the Sentiment and Moral Powers", section "Personal Affections", sub-section "Extrinsic Affections" – which offers: "anniversary celebration, solemnization, jubilee, commemoration, ovation, paean, triumph, jubilation; triumphal arch, bonfire, salute; salvo; feu de joie, flourish of trumpets, fanfare, colours flying, illuminations; red-letter day; trophy; Te Deum". And that is just the nouns.

Such are the joys – and digressive temptations – of a book that has never been out of print since it first fell from the inky hand of one of the most extraordinary figures of the extraordinary (exceptional/remarkable/ prodigious/portentous) Victorian era.

Roget was not just a doctor. He was also a polymath whose work influenced the discovery of laughing gas as an anaesthetic, the creation of the London sewage system, the invention of the slide rule and the development of the cinema industry – as well as being a chess master and an expert on bees, Dante and the kaleidoscope. All of which showed up in the work that he christened a "thesaurus", borrowing the Greek word for "treasure house". And if that was true of the 15,000 words in his original edition, how much more is it true of the latest, which contains a quarter of a million words? With each succeeding edition, the popularity of the work has increased. At the last count, it had sold 32 million copies.

The attraction of Roget is that it is far more than a bald compendium of synonyms. It offers a rhapsodic flight to some other, far more interesting place. "The joy of Roget is that it's thematic," says its latest editor, George Davidson, the linguistic expert behind the Chambers English Dictionary, Encarta World English Dictionary and the New Penguin English Dictionary, among others. "You go on a journey with Roget. It can take you to places you hadn't even thought of when you began browsing or hunting for a particular word." Even if those places are not necessarily where you want – or have the time – to go.

A new edition of Roget is routinely greeted by newspapers as if its new words are merely a mirror of our times. Thus, in the Eighties, the thesaurus included for the first time acid rain, creative accounting, insider trading, Cabbage Patch dolls and bag lady. There was a splendid row the year Betty Kirkpatrick, then the editor, introduced four-letter words.

Then came a telling index to the slickness, superficiality and self-indulgence of the Nineties, with: in-your-face, happy-clappy, alcopops, virtual reality, Millennium Bug, cyberpet, Tamagotchi, eating disorder, gesture politics, double whammy, care in the community, zero tolerance, Britpop, air-kissing, focus group, social exclusion, on-message, spin doctor, drug czar, Prozac, keyhole surgery, eco-warrior, road rage, bad hair day, bit of rough and physician-assisted suicide.

Next week, news-hungry journalists will scour the 1,296 pages of the new edition, looking for neologisms, from Ashtanga yoga to WAP phones. "It gets bigger and bigger," says Davidson, "because I didn't take much out. Just because people can't still find Tamagotchi in the shops doesn't mean they won't feel the need to find them in the book."

But to treat it like a dictionary is to miss the point. Everyone, devotees and detractors alike, agrees that a dictionary is what Roget is not. And detractors it certainly has. The old-school journalist Simon Winchester, author of a book on the making of the seminal Oxford English Dictionary, launched a withering attack on Roget last year in a massive article in The Atlantic Monthly. The thesaurus was, he declared, "a serious force for bad" in the literary universe. Roget's original goal may have been to make the use of English impeccably exact. But in practice, "uncritically offering up lists of alternative words" tempts "unthinking and unimpassioned mediocrity into the delusion that its disconnected glimpses of truths... can be worded by his specifics into creative thought and passion." Ouch.

Roget, he lambasted, was part of what has transported us to "our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity", in which language is "decayed, disarranged, and unlovely". And so he went on, for 15,000 words – none of which, he rather pompously insisted, had been crafted with the assistance of Roget. There is more than a touch of intellectual snobbery about this. Winchester gave his game away when he noted in an appalled tone that the popularity of Roget really took off after the invention of the crossword puzzle in 1913. Self-respecting people, he announced, never use dictionaries – or any other reference books – for crosswords. To do so is an admission of defeat. It is "simply not done".

Winchester is not alone. A similar tone pervades all those newspaper profiles of writers such as Jeffrey Archer or Eddie Shah, who make reference to their "well-thumbed Roget's Thesaurus". (But just imagine what their books would be like if they didn't use it.) Or disparagers recall the advertising copywriter looking for a slogan for Rice Krispies, who turned up the section in one Thesaurus edition headed "Sudden Violent Noise" and found "snap; crackle; pop". Few mention that Sylvia Plath admitted that in writing the poems in her first volume, The Colossus, she had frequent recourse to Roget – a book she once said she'd want instead of the Bible on a desert island.

Roget, of course, had something far more elevated in mind than a book for crossword cheats or students anxious to crank up the word count in their coursework essays. Throughout his career as a doctor, writer and medical lecturer, Roget had collected words. It was 50 years before, in his retirement, he thought about systematising and publishing his private collection to apply to language the same order that the great scientific taxonomists had bestowed on the classification of animals and plants.

It was, to him, a device for thinking. As the generations have passed, Roget's original methodology has moved farther and farther away from the contemporary world view. What has rendered that unimportant is the Thesaurus's comprehensive index. In Roget's day, the index was a rudimentary affair. Roget's son, John, who took over the Thesaurus when his father died, aged 90, in 1869, greatly expanded the book – and then came to realise it was in danger of collapsing under the huge increase in weight of the words. He expanded the size and scope of the index, too. And so it has continued, until, in the coming edition, the index is 66 pages longer than the Thesaurus itself.

Critics such as Simon Winchester insist that the index has transmuted Roget's Platonic method into a vulgar substitute for thinking. "The classification system is something of which almost no user of Roget is even vaguely aware," Winchester says. So much so that when the time came for television to be added, he sniffed, it was put in under "Intellect". Roget's noble conception has become a vehicle for "quick and easy solutions for... the middlebrow, the mindless, and the mundane". Davidson disagrees. "To make best use of Roget you have to use your brain, and a dictionary as well."

Well used, Roget has a number of legitimate functions. It is a reverse dictionary. Instead of having a word and looking for the meaning, with Roget you have a meaning and you're looking for the word. "Roget can harm your writing if you use it for elegant variation or showing off with sesquipedalian words," says the literary lion Philip Howard, with suitable irony. "Roget's peculiar classification forces you to think of the precise meanings of the words you want to use... Not as a blunderbuss to pepper your writing or speeches with words to show off your fecund fecundity [but] for retrieving a forgotten word or hitting the precise one."

It was, of course, an age in which the few were highly educated, rather than the many being broadly educated. Roget assumed that the type of person who read his book would know the meanings of all the words but just needed to be reminded of one that for the moment was on the tip of their tongue, or glossal extremity, as one wag had it. "When they found the right one, they would know it by what he called 'intuitive tact'," says Davidson. "For Simon Winchester to blame Roget for the fact that the people he sees as the plebs who use the book now don't necessarily [find the right word] is like looking at a drunken driver and blaming the car or the alcohol."

There is some persuasive support for such a standpoint from the work of the computer programmers who are trying to devise interactive software – as distinct from a mere search-and-find tool – for use with Roget. The task, as they put it, is developing "high-performance word-sense disambiguation algorithms" to "compute lexical cohesion in the text".

What this tells us in plain language is that though computers are good at listing synonyms, they are still no good at thinking. "It took two lexicographers an entire week to write the program for how a computer should structure a dictionary definition," Davidson reveals. And when it comes to Roget's association of ideas, the problem is much trickier. A human being can see pretty easily what are the links between "bacon", "brunch" and "restaurant". A computer has a lot more difficulty.

Roget is not simply a book of synonyms, partly because, as Roget admitted in 1852, "it is hardly possible to find two words having in all respect the same meaning, and being therefore interchangeable", but chiefly because Roget set out to offer words that express every aspect of an idea, rather than to list potential alternatives. A post-modern view of the world might be content with the latter, since everyone is now supposed to believe all opinions to have equal worth. But Roget – like anyone who properly appreciates his linguistic reveries – understands that there are implicit semantic relations and moral hierarchies in concepts and the words that connect them.

One of Roget's earliest critics dismissed the Thesaurus, saying, "The work mistakes the whole process by which living thought makes its way into living words." The Monty Python team turned that judgement on its head when they read through the book in search of inspiration. Roget, it transpires, can always provide something completely different/distinct/divergent/abnormal/eccentric/idiosyncratic/freakish/funny. And long may it remain so.

A brief history of Dr Peter Roget

It is one of the ironies of history that Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) is best remembered for his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, published in 1852. In his day he was celebrated for a huge range of achievements, but lexicography was one of the few things not on the list.

The son of a Genevan pastor, Roget was brought up in London's French Protestant community. Perhaps that contributed to his determination to perfect his mastery of the English language. But in the early years he concentrated on medicine and other science.

He graduated from Edinburgh University as a doctor at the age of 19 and became one of the founders of Manchester Medical School, before returning to London. As a young doctor he published several important works on subjects such as tuberculosis, epilepsy, the anaesthetic effects of laughing gas, the medical care of prisoners and perception and feeling in animals. He also developed a test for detecting the presence of arsenic and proposed a method of water filtration through sand that is still used on London's water supply. He practised medicine in London from 1808 to 1840, offering his services for free to those who couldn't pay. In 1814 he invented a device to calculate the roots and powers of numbers; it formed the basis of the slide rule, which was used in schools and universities until the age of the calculator more than 150 years later.

In 1820, with Michael Faraday and Joseph Plateau, he began a series of experiments about the human optic system. In 1824 he presented a paper to the Royal Society, describing an optical illusion he had noticed while watching the wheels of a carriage through the blinds of a window. He proved that the image of an object is retained on the retina for about one 16th of a second after the object has gone out of view – and devised a shutter-and-aperture apparatus to study the phenomenon, which was the prototype for the modern cinema and television camera. In 1827 he became secretary of the Royal Society, and he was one of the founders of London University.

He wrote widely – from sixpenny treatises on electricity, galvanism, magnetism and electromagnetism, to about 300,000 words in contributions to the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He invented a pocket chessboard and posed the first chess problems for the Illustrated London News. He wrote on Dante, on the kaleidoscope and, scathingly, on phrenology.

It was only when he was 70 that he began compiling, from lists that he had kept all his life for his own use, the book that now bears his name.

Roget's 'Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, 150th anniversary edition', is published by Penguin on 4 July, £16.99

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