Roget and his Thesaurus

Peter Mark Roget
Peter Mark Roget

Peter Mark Roget was born on this day, January 18, in 1779. For a man of his time, he lived to a remarkable old age. He was 90 years old when he died on September 12, 1869. His name lives to this day, in Roget’s Thesaurus. Dr Samuel Johnson is remembered for, among other things, compiling the first popular English dictionary. Roget created something almost equally valuable – the thesaurus, “a book that contains lists of words that have similar meanings”,  to quote the online Macmillan Dictionary.

If Johnson’s Dictionary – first published in 1755 – was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, defining words and giving their meanings, Roget’s Thesaurus – originally published in 1852 – was a creation of the Victorian age, the age of empire and a great many inventions. While there had been dictionaries before Johnson’s, Roget’s thesaurus was something new.

I still remember my first Roget’s Thesaurus from my schooldays. The words were not arranged in alphabetical order – “aback” was not followed by “abacus”, as in the Oxford English Dictionary – but according to the ideas they represent. So “birth” is followed by “the body”, Then comes “hair”, “clothing materials”, “clothing”, “unclothing”, “nutrition”, “food”, “refreshment”, etc. Each of these headwords or main entries is followed by a string of similar or related words. So “birth” is associated with words like “genesis”, “nativity”, “childbirth”, “delivery”. This is from the sixth edition of the Original Roget’s International Thesaurus edited by Barbara Ann Kipfer, who also edited the Flip Dictionary.

One could argue “genesis” and “childbirth” don’t mean the same thing. That is why it may be better to use an alphabetical thesaurus like the Concise Oxford Thesaurus or The New Penguin Theasurus.  The entries are arranged alphabetically, as in a dictionary, and the differences explained between words like “childbirth” and “genesis”.

I, nevertheless, love the original Thesaurus because each entry includes so many words. They may not be strictly synonyms, but there is the pleasure of an unexpected discovery, coming upon a word you did not expect to see.

“Love” in Roget’s Thesaurus

Look up “love” in Roget’s Thesaurus, for example. It includes obsolete words like “leman” and expressions like “a pair of turtledoves”. You are reminded of Chaucer and Shakespeare.

Words are like the people who use them. They are born at a certain place at a certain time. Some become very popular and live to a ripe old age. Others die young. They also intermarry. So we have portmanteau words like “advertorial” and “infotainment”, created by joining two words. Words may also change in character, acquiring new meanings. “Bad”, for example, can mean “good”. And the English language is particularly fertile, spawning new words at a prodigious rate. The latest (12th, Centennial) edition of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary has over 240,000 words, phrases and meanings. And that’s the concise Oxford.

No wonder Roget’s Thesaurus is a whale of a book. English is a whale of a language.

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