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?

And Roget, Whipple implied, never had an original thought in his life. He was a mere classifier of the existing order, a pedant, a noble dullard who should no more have been let loose on the language than a civil engineer should be let loose on the west door of Chartres, or an industrial chemist on the manufacture of Haut-Brion. Whipple, amused and appalled, saw Roget as a man devoid of poetry, a sufferer from a "fluent debility,"

which never stumbles into ideas nor stutters into passion, which calls its commonplace comprehensiveness, and styles its sedate languor repose, would, if put upon a short allowance of words, and compelled to purchase language at the expense of conquering obstacles, be likely to evince some spasms of genuine expression; but it is hardly reasonable to expect this verbal abstemiousness at a period when the whole wealth of the English tongue is placed at the disposal of the puniest whisperers of rhetoric,—when the art of writing is avowedly taught on the principle of imitating the "best models,"—when words are worked into the ears of the young in the hope that something will be found answering to them in their brains,—and when Dr. Peter Mark Roget, who never happened on a verbal felicity or uttered a "thought-executing" word in the course of his long and useful life, rushes about, book in hand, to tempt unthinking and unimpassioned mediocrity into the delusion, that its disconnected glimpses of truths never fairly grasped, and its faint movements of embryo aspirations which never broke their shell, can be worded by his specifics into creative thought and passion.

Whatever the carping and the cavils, Roget and his publishers swiftly realized that their creation was a gold mine. The first edition of the Thesaurus, bound octavo, sold out its initial printing of a thousand copies by the end of the year. A second edition came out the following March, and a third—"cheaper ... enlarged ... improved"—went on the streets bound duodecimo in February of 1855. This edition—for which Roget rewrote part of the text and added "many thousand" new expressions and subsidiary headings that in his view filled gaps in the original structure—was used as the basis for so many subsequent printings that the steel-and-antimony plates were eventually worn smooth and useless.

The first American edition (1854) was edited by a man named Barnas Sears and published by Gould and Lincoln, of Boston. Roget conceived an immediate dislike for it, writing that "an imperfect edition of this work was published at Boston ... in which the editor, among other mutilations, has altogether omitted the Phrases ... and has removed from the body of the work all the words and expressions borrowed from a foreign language, throwing them into an Appendix, where ... they are completely lost to the inquirer." He would perhaps have been more pleased when the distinctly different International Edition was published in New York, in 1922, by Thomas Crowell (which had bought the rights to the book in 1886 and had published for the next three and a half decades what was essentially a facsimile of the original, despite its being manifestly designed for the English-speakers of England). The rationale behind the International Edition was abundantly clear. As C. O. Sylvester Mawson wrote in his preface to Crowell's Roget's International Thesaurus, "The English language marches with no frontiers; it is a world possession."So we find words and expressions that were much better known on the Continent than in either America or Britain. Under the heading for Haste and Leisure, for instance, we find brusquerie and its Latin converse, otium cum dignitate. (In the newest, fifth edition of the International, published by HarperCollins in 1992, both these obscure forms have vanished, though the Latin term that was under the Leisure column has been replaced by the Italian dolce far niente, which is amply supplemented by the phrases ride the gravy train and lead the life of Riley.)

Roget's son, John, took over the Thesaurus when Roget died, at ninety, in 1869. John was more than modest about his own achievements (his only other publication was "A History of the Society of Water-Colourists," in 1891) and insisted that any changes he made to the great book during what was to be thirty-nine years of work (up until his death, in 1908) were "almost entirely of a practical nature, demanding industry and attention, rather than philosophic culture or the learning of a philologist."

John Roget did, however, engineer one important organizational compromise during his tenure: he extended his father's embryonic system of cross-referencing and fine-tuned it over the years, greatly simplifying a work that was in danger of collapsing under its own weight because of the rapid proliferation of words. (We like to think that our time is producing an uncountable welter of new words; but in comparing the mere 45,000 English words recognized by the last editions of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, published in the 1860s, with the 414,825 listed in the first edition of the OED, published in 1928, one can perhaps understand the pressure under which thesaurus compilers of the time were compelled to work.)

As the editions thundered out, the new words included in them—electrolier, lorry, motor-car, veldt, and outspan were all added under John Roget's suzerainty—reflected new technologies and the war in Natal and Cape Province. When television was added, it was put into the class of concepts that is termed Intellect—the exercise of the mind. (Sour minds might wonder at the propriety of classifying one of the senses of television under Intellect, particularly if they see on the screen such puzzling phenomena as Jerry Springer, Dan Rather, and Ron Popeil's Pocket Fisherman.)

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