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?

By the 1920s the craze had spread across America and across the Atlantic; by 1930 the venerable Times of London had a puzzle, the speed of completing which was used as a test of ability and intelligence. The provost of Eton, it was said, finished this exercise each morning in the time it took to boil his egg (from cold).

But there were, especially in Britain, strict and unspoken rules. Self-respecting people figuring out the answers to clever crossword puzzles never, ever used dictionaries—or any other reference books. To do so was an admission of defeat. It was simply not done.

From the archives:

The Atlantic Monthly Puzzler
A collection of word games by Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon from July, 1997, to the present. Each Atlantic Puzzler has its own theme, accompanied by special instructions.

"Masters of the Tiles" (June 1987)
Even to initiates, Scrabble has yet to yield up all its secrets. By Barry Chamish

Because many of these early crossword puzzles offered monetary rewards, a goodly number of stupid, callow, competitive, and greedy people did not observe these proprieties. They had a pressing need—to gain standing, to win dollars or pounds, to best the fellow next door. They yearned for a tool for looking up unknown words: a book that listed words that were similar to other words, so that if the clue was "habit," they might find the answer in a list that stretched from cacoëthes and consuetude to disposition, leaning, and mannerism. Thesauri answered the call. Scores of them were on sale—the 1920s equivalent of the 935 thesauri listed for sale by Amazon eight decades later. And the king of the hill even then was Roget.

Roget's Thesaurus, which had come into being as a linguistic example of the Platonic ideal, became instead a vade mecum for the crossword cheat.

It already had other, more insidious shortcomings. By eschewing definitions altogether, and thus suggesting no choices, it fostered poor writing. It offered facile answers to complex linguistic questions. It appealed to a growing desire for snap solutions to tricky verbal situations. It enabled students to appear learned without ever helping to make them so. It encouraged a malaprop society. It made for literary window dressing. It was meretricious.

But a tool for cutting corners? How Peter Mark Roget might have turned in his grave: the book by which he set so much store, his most lasting memorial, was being used for petty and degrading purposes—assisting no one with the language, but boosting the circulation of tabloid dross. And its usage has not widened significantly since (not, that is, in the sense of becoming more than a quick and easy remedy for the lexically distressed—for the literary poseur, if you will). A student in want of a word? No need to expend mental energy, no need to wait until blood prickles from the forehead: Roget will supply the answer, will find the syllables to plug the hole, will offer the solution with no delay or fuss. No need to bend, spindle, or mutilate.

I thought when I began this that I might telephone or write a representative few writers, to ask if they used Roget to any measurable degree. I wondered if I might drop a line to John Updike, or Saul Bellow; I wondered about those writers who obviously have exceptional vocabulary control: Richard Ford, Anthony Lane, Tom Wolfe, Calvin Trillin. Or William F. Buckley, surely the writer with the greatest store of words. I thought about Robert Lowell, Anthony Burgess, Julian Barnes. I imagined lyricists—Cole Porter, Tom Lehrer. I thought first about the translator of the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun, and second about the most recent translator of Dostoevski. Did any of these refer to Roget? Would any of them admit it? And what would be their overall view of this century-and-a-half-old book? Did they find it inspiring? Irritating? Do they use a thesaurus as much as they do a dictionary? A phone book?

In the end I neither called nor wrote—because I knew the answer to be obvious. Everyone has the book. Occasionally one makes use of it. But one never, never relies on it to help with the making of good writing. It may be used once in a while, to jog the memory, to unstall a synaptic moment. But it should never be trawled through or mined; its offerings should never be taken and transfused into a paragraph as relief for emptiness of thought.

Whatever merit all these paragraphs may have as writing, it seems appropriate to mention that Roget was not once employed in the selection of les mots justes. Such words as these paragraphs contain came, as they should do for all writers, from within—from memory, experience, conversation, reading, imperfectly recalled strands of knowledge.

And anyway—it is not simply by richness of word supply that a great or even a good writer makes a mark. It is by the acuity with which he or she uses the words that mind and passion have placed at the ready. It is the brave employment of the words that one already knows that makes the writing fine or no. And no increase in their numbers will do very much to improve the temper or the temperature or the pace if mind and heart and argument and passion are wanting. An engineer faced with the challenge of working on the west door of Chartres would do no better if he had more equipment: perhaps, in fact, he would ruin the greatness there more quickly, would more efficiently reduce it to something utterly without inspiration or art.

Consider, in conclusion, two simple passages, both drawn from the first chapter of Sir Ernest Gower's The Complete Plain Words (1954), a British-government-issued book that is still the Bible of the best English writing. The first is from a Shakespearean sonnet that begins, "Full many a glorious morning have I seen / Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye," and continues, as Gower cites, "Kissing with golden face the meadows green / Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchymy."

There was no Roget when Shakespeare wrote those lines—or, for that matter, any dictionary. The lines were written perhaps a decade before Robert Cawdrey and his Table Alphabeticall, 250 years before Peter Mark Roget and his high lexical ideals. And yet the writing is perfect, in choice and arrangement of words, in thought, timbre, address, and note.

As, on altogether another level, is this—a notice that was once placed inside all British post offices: "Postmasters are neither bound to give change nor authorised to demand it."

No Roget was employed here, either. The civil servant who penned those words knew just what he wanted to say, and had a mind lithe and educated enough to come up with a sentence in which every word counts, not one is superfluous, and the whole has a harmony that in its modest way achieves the greatness of poetry.

So, indeed, Peter Mark Roget, physician, chess genius, expert on bees, phrenology, and the kaleidoscope: for all your noble ideals and Aristotelian logic, your book offers comfort only to the few—some clues for crossword cheats, some natterings for speechwriters, and some quick and easy solutions for the making of the middlebrow, the mindless, and the mundane. Roget has become no more than a calculator for the lexically lazy: used too often, relied on at all, it will cause the most valuable part of the brain to atrophy, the core of human expression to wither.

To make us think a little more, to make us wonder a little longer, might it not now be for the best for your book simply to vanish, and for the name that is at the root of the eponym to be banished from the lexicon for all time? Perhaps the Encyclopaedia Britannica is right to give you only twenty lines. Perhaps Microsoft has the meet and proper solution: to help render Roget into a nonword once again, and let the memory of the man and his creation fade, so that we can clamber back to a plainer, simpler world, where dictionaries and encyclopedias alone are set to guide us, and where our literary powers are born not out of banal and mediocre suggestion, not out of lexical shopping lists, but out of passion, thought, and intensity of feeling.

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