Monday, April 11, 2011

A Paean, Accolade, Tribute, and Encomium to Peter Mark Roget

Peter Mark Roget, author of Roget's Thesaurus

     I come to praise Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget’s International Thesaurus should be on every writer’s bookshelf, within easy reach. Be sure you have the right version of a thesaurus. Later I’ll explain which one that is. It’s not the kind of synonym dictionary which simply lists words alphabetically and piles synonyms next to them. The real Roget’s Thesaurus is much better than that. It doesn’t pile words, it offers them in bouquets.
     I’m not really sure how writers wrote at all decently before Roget’s Thesaurus was first published, in 1852. In some cases, it seems, writers simply made up the words they needed, as John Milton invented the word “pandemonium” for a “place full of devils,” and Shakespeare probably invented “boldfaced,” “coldblooded,” “eyesore,” and “enrapt,” among other words. (There are many words attributed to Shakespeare’s invention, but it’s difficult to know which ones he invented and which ones he simply put into print before anybody else we know of. But I do like to think he invented “droplet” and “newfangled.”)
     I come to laud Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget was born in 1779. He was a smart fellow. He entered university at 14 and became a medical doctor by age 19. He dedicated much of his life to medical education. He wrote some of the first papers about nitrous oxide—laughing gas—and its use as an anesthetic. He was an early expert on the subject of tuberculosis. He even ranged beyond medicine: He invented the log-log slide rule and tried for years to invent a calculator. He helped found the University of London. He gave a paper on the optical illusion that makes turning wheel spokes look static when viewed through vertical slits—an idea that was connected, many years later, to the development of motion pictures. He invented clever chess problems, with clever solutions, and a useful pocket chessboard.
     I come to pay tribute to Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget did not have an easy time of it. His father died when Roget was young. His mother was a little crazy. An uncle committed suicide by slitting his own throat while Roget tried to stop him. His daughter was a depressive whom Roget more or less tried to ignore. He was probably obsessive-compulsive himself. He liked to make lists, possibly as a way to deal with the chaos of his personal life. The best book about him is called The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus, by Joshua Kendall.
     I come to celebrate Peter Mark Roget.

The first page of Roget's original thesaurus. His first category was "existence."
     Around 1800, Roget began making lists of words. He grouped them by “verbal classification,” with categories and subcategories. The 19th Century was the Age of Classification (of animals, of fossils, of elements). Roget loved to classify. For example, he placed the word “praise” under the general category of “Affections,” the subcategory of “Morality,” the subsubcategory of “Moral Sentiments,” and the subsubsubcategory of “Approbation.” He divided that last subsubsubcategory into parts of speech having to do with approbation: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on. In outline form, it looked like this:

Class Eight: Affections
I. Morality
            C. Moral Sentiments
                        Section 966. Approbation
                                    Sections 966.9-966.14: Verbs

     All verbs and verb phrases having to do with “approbation” (i.e., approval) are listed there, from “approve” to “ring the praises of.” There are 124 different verbs and verb phrases grouped around “praise” in Roget’s Thesaurus. (In the Microsoft Word thesaurus, by contrast, there are just 14 boring synonyms.) Not only that, but in Roget’s system, you could find, nearby, all the nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and interjections related to the concept of praise, like “credential,” “estimable,” “in favor of,” and “bravo!”
     I come to say “Bravo!” to Peter Mark Roget.
     Roget made his word lists, he said, “to supply my own deficiencies.” Apparently he didn’t think he could come up with words easily enough without the list. He completed the first version of his list of words in 1805. He kept building and modifying the list for another 47
years before he felt it was useful enough to publish. (Forty-seven years. The 19th Century was a patient century.) The first publication of Roget’s Thesaurus was, as I said, in 1852. It was called The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. The word “thesaurus” is derived from the Greek for “treasure.”
     I come to offer accolades to Peter Mark Roget.

You should buy a version of Roget's Thesaurus that looks something like this, with the word "original" in the title.
     Roget’s Thesaurus has gone through scores of revisions and expansions since 1852. One of the most important revisions occurred in 1911 and was done by a famous lexicographer named C.O. Sylvester Mawson, who also revised Webster’s New International Dictionary. This year is the 100th Anniversary of Mawson’s revision. The edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus that I have on my desk is called the “Third,” but it’s really about the sixty-third. It contains eight large general classifications of words (Abstract Relations, Space, Physics, Matter, Sensation, Intellect, Volition, and Affections). Those large classifications are broken down into 1,040 subsubsubcategories of words (Number 996 is where “praise” can be found). The first subsubsubcategory in the book is “existence”; the last is “religious institutions.”
      Peter Mark Roget meets with my approval.
      Roget’s Thesaurus does something else besides offer large conceptual categories of words that belong together: it alternates between word groups that fit one category and word groups that fit in the opposite category. In other words, to oversimply a bit, antonyms follow synonyms. So after the “approbation” subsubsubcategory comes the “disapprobation” subsubsubcategory, with words like “disfavor” and “discountenance” and “deprecate”—more or less antonyms for “praise.”
      I feel no disapprobation whatsoever for Peter Mark Roget.
      Roget set out to “supply [his] own deficiencies.” Ever since his thesaurus was published, it has been supplying the deficiencies of all the rest of us who consider ourselves writers. You should throw away, or at least ignore, any "dictionaries" of synonyms you own. Ignore what you find on the internet. Instead, go out now and buy a hardcover copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus. I could not write without mine.
This is the "approbation" subsubsubclassification of Roget's Thesaurus.
     I beat the drum for Peter Mark Roget.
     And for his thesaurus. To find a word in Roget’s International Thesaurus, you must go through two steps. This is one step more than a dictionary of synonyms requires, but it’s worth it. First, in Roget, you look up the general idea you’re looking for in the back half of the book, where common words are listed alphabetically. (Often, I have only a vague general idea of the concept. The thesaurus is miraculously helpful in leading me to a more precise notion of my idea.) Let’s say you’re interested in the general concept of “saying good things about something” or “praising” it. So you look up “praise” in the alphabetical listing in the back of the thesaurus. There you will see some noun concepts for praise (approbation, flattery) and some verb concepts (laud, glorify). Let’s say you want synonyms that mean “praise” in the sense of “laud.” You see, next to “laud,” the number 966.12. You then look in the first half of the thesaurus—the meat part—for section 966.12, and voila!, there are a bunch of synonyms for “praise.” But, even better, there are hundreds and hundreds of other words—nouns (encomium, tribute), verbs (compliment, flatter), and interjections (hurrah! attaboy!)—right nearby. No synonym dictionary will do that for you. And next door (section 967) are all the words connected to disapprobation, from “censure” to “berate” to “God forbid!” This is all a wonderful way to find fresh and interesting ways—and, more important, precise ways—to say what you want. I repeat: I can’t write without it.
     God forbid writers stop using Roget’s Thesaurus. All hail this great book! Bully for you, Peter Mark Roget!

This is the wrong kind of thesaurus to buy, in my opinion. I recommend you do not buy a thesaurus that says "In A-Z Form" or "in dictionary form." Stick to Roget's original design for his thesaurus, which requires two steps to find synonyms. The extra step is worth it.


  1. Hooray, Ed! Cheers and Huzzahs! Roget is my second writing hero, after you, of course! And to you I say, O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

  2. . . . full of grace? Again, bravo, Ed!