Word Imperfect

Roget's Thesaurus has long been considered one of the great lexicographical achievements in the history of the English language, a reference work of astonishing ubiquity and far-reaching influence. But now the author of The Professor and the Madman—the best-selling tale of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary—questions the legacy of the definitive list of synonyms that the brilliant Peter Mark Roget compiled 150 years ago. Is the name Roget becoming a synonym for intellectually second-rate?

The writing world may at last be having second thoughts about Peter Mark Roget, Esquire—polymath, physician, cinema inventor, slide-rule maker, chess master, lexical scholar, and the man who gave us one of the best-known reference works in the English language. One hint as to his possibly altered standing comes from the latest version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which, although Roget was an editor of the seventh edition and a contributor of more than 300,000 words to it, gives him somewhat short shrift today, with an entry of a mere twenty lines. On the same pair of pages onto which his life is squeezed are far-more-substantial articles about figures one must suppose are now more deserving of note: the Korean leader Roh Tae Woo; the Belgian statesman Charles Rogier; the Huguenot Duke of Rohan; the author of a book called Australian Totemism, one Géza Róheim; and a murdered Nazi storm trooper named Ernst Röhm.

But a more potent clue is to be found whenever one tries, using modern equipment, to write anything about Roget. The spell-checker that is provided on most computers these days has no listing whatsoever for Roget. The old-fashioned Oxford English Dictionary has a listing, naturally, and makes it clear that the word—as in, for example, to look it up in Roget—is now so well known as to have the status of an eponym. (It has to be said, however, that the name is not in Oxford's Dictionary of Eponyms.) But no readily available computer-program-integrated dictionary seems to agree with the OED: none I used lists the word, even though Microsoft Word (which not unreasonably sports its company name in its own dictionary) has a fair enough share of other eponymous and similar words and phrases that might be thought of as equally significant—boycott, thermos, Kodak, and bowler hat among them.

No, if you attempt to write the word Roget using any of Bill Gates's spectacular software, you get a squiggly red line underneath, indicating that you have written a word the software doesn't recognize. Even worse, if you happen to enter the same word in the thesaurus that comes with Microsoft Word (but which is made under contract by a firm with the name—somewhat less than encouraging for lexicographers—Soft-Art Inc.), you will be obligingly informed that what you must have been thinking of, when you were so slack as to write by mistake the name of literature's most celebrated helpmeet, was in fact the word rogue. Don't know a good synonym for philistine? Why not look it up in rogue?

Yet what some will see as just another melancholy comment on the degraded state of contemporary language has for me turned out to be rather helpful. I bless the operatives at Soft-Art and their fine economy of word association. For what I am trying to grapple with, and what might otherwise have resulted in little more than a hymn of praise to a man I see (for his myriad other achievements) as one of the great unsung heroes of all time, has been distilled into an elegant and nicely challenging proposition: Perhaps Peter Mark Roget actually deserves to be regarded as the very rogue that this sparkling new twenty-first-century thesaurus would make him. If so, it is because the evident decline in language is something for which at least partial blame must be laid at his door; it has its origins in the extraordinary eponymous volume that he single-handedly created almost 150 years ago.

To put it more forcefully: Roget's Thesaurus no longer merits the unvarnished adoration it has over the years almost invariably received. It should be roundly condemned as a crucial part of the engine work that has transported us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity.

More than 30 million copies of Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases have been sold since the book was first published, in London, by the firm of Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, in May of 1852. It is, by any standard, one of the most popular reference books ever written—a "treasure-house" indeed, as thesaurus translates from the Greek. Rare is the household without a dog-eared copy somewhere—perhaps a holdover from school days; perhaps bought years ago with good intent, along with Merriam-Webster and Bartlett's Familiar Quotations; perhaps twinned with a book of crossword puzzles or acrostics. The motives for owning Roget—improving that essay, finding that eight-letter word beginning with t, getting the mot juste for that Rotary Club or senate-campaign speech—are manifold.

There have been countless editions. Roget himself presided over twenty-five of the twenty-eight—each one subtly different—that were published during the two decades in which he continued to work on his magnum opus. The book has been published in America continuously since 1854. A considerable industry has arisen alongside Roget, devoted to books with a similar function and with similar titles. Many of these works once used the word Roget in their titles, as the name of the original author or, quite often, as a purely descriptive term. C.O. & Sylvester Mawson's A Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms; Being a Presentation of Roget's Thesaurus ... in Alphabetical Form (1931), is one example. Amazon lists 935 works for sale that include thesaurus in the title. (An impressive number, one might think—though it is perhaps worth noting that the same catalogue lists 21,782 products that incorporate the word dictionary in their titles, and 10,748 that call themselves encyclopedias. Roget may sell phenomenally well, but it has much less competition than do many other great works of reference.)

However defining and useful Roget's Thesaurus may have proved to be over the past 150 years, it was not the first book of its kind. Actually it would be more accurate to say that earlier books performed the function that Roget's Thesaurus is believed to perform—a distinction that makes it necessary to focus at the outset on three questions: What books of similar intent existed in published form before 1852? What exactly was Roget trying to do when he first sat down to assemble his famous work? And what did he in fact achieve?

The answer to the third question is, superficially at least, self-evident: Roget's Thesaurus is a stylish and comprehensive list of synonyms. The other questions are less straightforward, however, and to answer them we must first consider sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English society—particularly the eagerness among its most prominent members to make sure they looked and sounded elegant and learned.

This period of English history was witness to an explosion of intellectual energy. It was the time of Newton and Dryden, Bunyan and Purcell, Halley and Wren, Aphra Behn and Beau Nash. These great thinkers and creators radiated energy; the nation basked in their glory; and those who were rich and grand enough but less talented did their corporate best to sparkle in all the reflected luminance.

The style of the times was all about glitter and reflection: the houses, the parties, the gardens, the games, the flowery rituals of mannered society—all pointed to a fascination with the baroque complications of an ever accelerating civilization. The dress of the day suggested much the same. Fashionable foppishness also exceeded all reason in what may strike us today as the most ludicrous of English affectations at that time: the laboriously convoluted language. The way the upper classes and those who aspired to join them tortured the tongue positively beggars belief.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

This Short Film Skewers Hollywood, Probably Predicts Disney's Next Hit

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.


The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In