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Word Imperfect - Page 2
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ut although all these volumes listed hundreds upon hundreds of almost interchangeable words and phrases, and gave helpful hints as to how each might be suitably employed, none of them—with the possible exception of Piozzi's—took care to examine the subtle notion of the synonym itself. None of the editors wondered—at least not in print—why a language as complex and finely tuned as English would include any two words that meant exactly the same thing. Was there such a thing as a real synonym? Or had every word been created for a unique purpose? Roget, who began as early as 1805 to consider the need for some formal classification of the chaotic entity that was then the English language, was fascinated by these questions. The answers he constructed led him, fifty years later, to the creation of this organizational masterpiece that bears his name.

Consider some of the words that are listed in the OED (under synonym) as examples of as-near-as-it-comes synonymy. The first are serpent and snake. Are these words true synonyms? In terms of pure definition, yes—sort of. Serpent is defined in the OED as "any of the scaly limbless reptiles regarded as having the properties of hissing and 'stinging'; Zool. a reptile of the group Ophidia; a snake." Snake is defined as "one or other of the limbless vertebrates constituting the reptilian order Ophidia (characterized by a greatly elongated body, tapering tail, and smooth scaly integument), some species of which are noted for their venomous properties; an ophidian; a serpent." The difference at this level is minuscule: one definition is more comprehensive, mentioning the vertebrated skeleton and the scaly integument; the other is somewhat more colorful, accentuating the hissing noise that the beast is able to emit.

Were this all, one might agree that the two words are perfect synonyms. But the OED, complete as always, continues its definition of serpent, observing that nowadays, in ordinary use, the word is "applied chiefly to the larger and more venomous species; otherwise only rhetorical ... or with reference to serpent-worship."

Therein is the suggestion of reptilian synonymy blown suddenly asunder. For serpent is indeed the word we choose when we want to denote a snake that is bigger and nastier than most, and snake is the word we choose to describe any smooth and elongated creature that skitters from beneath the lawnmower blades. We say, on the one hand, "There is a snake in the basement" and, on the other, that missionaries were once thrown into "pits filled with serpents." But we don't proclaim there to be a serpent in the garden shed, and if we told a listener that a missionary was in a pit full of snakes, we would realize from the resulting questions—Were they big? Were they venomous?—that we had used the word wrongly, poorly, or incautiously. (This leads to another supposed synonymy: venom and poison. The words, however, are not exactly synonymous, because one can speak with venom yet perhaps not quite with poison. Venom is both a substance and a tone; poison is more a matter of chemistry.)

Examination of any words thought to be synonymous reveals a congruency of range but not an identical meaning. Take some other illustrative related examples from the OED: ship, vessel; compassion, fellow-feeling, sympathy; enormous, excessive, immense; glad, happy, joyful, joyous; kill, slay, slaughter; grieve, mourn, lament, sorrow. Some are very close indeed; there is little to distinguish a ship from a vessel, except that one doesn't say fishing ship or war vessel—suggesting that a vessel is likely to be engaged in peaceful activities, whereas a ship can have a more menacing role. One cannot quite imagine Nelson's having spoken of vessels on the horizon off Cape Trafalgar, or any dockside idler's speaking of the handsome lines of the ship that has just brought lobsters back from the Outer Banks. (In truth, he would probably say boat.) Others on the list are more obviously distinguishable. Sometimes the distinction is a matter of degree: one kills a man; one slays his child; one slaughters the villagers who sheltered the family. On other occasions the context suggests one choice rather than another: one feels compassion for the villagers in such circumstances, but fellow-feeling for the brother of the first who had to die.

The practices surrounding synonymy, which seem to have come into being at around the time Roget was beginning to codify the language (after Samuel Johnson had created his dictionary but before the members of the Philological Society of London had commenced work on the all-encompassing OED), are really quite simple. Currently, the high priest of this field is Ladislav Zgusta, a scholar of Czech extraction (reinforcing the notion that English is often more scrupulously regarded by those who come from less than pure English stock; James Murray, of the OED, was proudly a Scot, and Roget came from a Swiss Huguenot family). To be absolute synonyms, Zgusta says, words must be the same in three distinct ways: They must have the same designatum—that is, the same essential qualities. They must have the same connotation—the same associated features of meaning. And they must occupy the same range of usage and application—the contexts in which they are generally used must be identical.

Very few words satisfy this formidable set of criteria. Most of those that do are technical. In his standard work on lexicography, Dictionaries (1984), the near-legendary authority Sidney Landau offered as an example ten absolute synonyms, agreeing in designatum, connotation, and range, for the mad-cow-disease-related human ailment that is currently terrifying England and threatening France—Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, widely known as CJD. The variants that Landau listed include Jakob-Creutzfeldt disease, spongiform encephalopathy, and Jones-Nevin syndrome. (The disease afflicting England, with ninety-one known cases and perhaps thousands more expected, is in fact now known, confusingly for my purposes here, as New-Variant CJD—and is different from Landau's plain-vanilla CJD. The new version varies more in terms of pathology than of lexical standing.)

The synonyms listed by the OED fall short of Zgusta's standards in a variety of ways. Serpent and snake have the same designatum—each is a long, slithery, cold-blooded, and scaly reptile. And they have more or less the same connotation. But they have very different ranges of use, as I have shown. So with only two of the three criteria satisfied, serpent and snake are not absolute synonyms: they are simply near synonyms, not to be substituted for each other without care and attention to the context.

Much the same can be said for beast and brute, or mirth and cheerfulness. The words in each pair share a designatum but not a connotation or range of possible use. A brute is invariably untamed; a beast often is, but he need not be. We can say "a beast of burden" or "a beast of the field"; we would never say "a brute of burden" and probably would not say "a brute of the field"—though we might allow "brute of the forest," since the word here reinforces an image in which all is mystery and secret danger.

An awareness of the nuances of synonymy, then, is fundamental to the speaking and writing of good English. Merely cataloguing synonyms, uncritically offering up lists of alternative words from which a speaker or writer may choose, makes for something less happy. Roget realized this back at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the literate world was awash in dictionaries, thesauri, lexicons, and other guides for the betterment of verbal display. His goal was to make sure that what was written and spoken and read was impeccable. To this end he began a study of the language with the primary aim of classifying it and then distilling from that classification a guide to how it might best be made to work.

eter Mark Roget, born in London on January 18, 1779, was in myriad ways a most extraordinary man. I said earlier that he was a polymath, and in the literal sense of the word—"a person of much or varied learning"—he truly was. Although the term is still widely used today, few men or women in Western societies are genuinely polymathic. In Britain the physician, philosopher, playwright, librettist, and writer Jonathan Miller springs to mind as a possibility; in America, sad to say, despite some astonishingly bright people, no one fits the bill.

Roget seems to have been interested in and learned about almost everything. I first came across him when I was investigating the circumstances of the 1831 awarding of a medal by the Geological Society of London. A geologist named William Smith, who had for many years been ill-used by his peers, was, after a scandalous delay, being formally recognized. I wanted to know who those peers were, and who had so wisely engineered Smith's reappraisal. I needed a list of those who attended the award ceremony.

The Geological Society had the relevant papers in its archives, and the dusty volume holding them was duly brought to me. It was opened carefully by a librarian, who found the proceedings of the meeting and scanned the handwritten list of those present. It was much as I had expected: the meeting had been chaired by the renowned Adam Sedgwick, and the attendees included William Broderip, the Reverend William Whewell, Leonard Horner, Captain James Vetch, the Henry De la Beche who would go on to be the first head of the British Geological Survey, Professor Edward Turner, the great Silurian expert Roderick Murchison, and one Dr. P. M. Roget. The librarian gulped. "Bless my soul," she said. "Do you think it could be him?" We looked in the index of members and found that Peter Mark Roget had indeed been a fellow of the Geological Society—and of many, many other august bodies besides.

The title page of the first edition of his Thesaurus offers tantalizing clues to his brilliance: his geological inclinations are shown only in the string of initials after his name ("M.D., F.R.S., F.R.A.S., F.G.S."), but he is also identified as "Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians; Member of the Senate of the University of London; of the Literary and Philosophical Societies etc. of Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, Quebec, New York, Haarlem, Turin and Stockholm. Author of the 'Bridgewater Treatise on Animal and Vegetable Physiology,' etc."

The "etc." shrouds an array of other achievements. Even the sparse Britannica entry mentions that Roget invented the so-called log-log slide rule, that he was the secretary of London's fabled Royal Society, and that he was a philologist. A cursory look at his scores of published papers attests to his many other interests (and the fact that he wrote some of these papers in French, German, and Latin as well as English shows his formidable linguistic abilities, stemming from his Swiss Huguenot roots).

Roget's first published works were purely medical, though wide-ranging by any standards: a study of the effects of inhaling laughing gas, a test for detecting the presence of arsenic, how the skin changes color if a patient ingests silver nitrate, on sweating, on tetanus, on voluntary action of the iris, on perception and feeling in animals, on epilepsy, on the medical care of prisoners. By midlife he was starting to branch out to other topics. In 1815, when the rest of Europe was preoccupied with Waterloo, he published a paper titled "A New Instrument for Performing Mechanically the Involution and Evolution of Numbers"—that is, the slide rule. Three years later he produced papers on the kaleidoscope and Dante. He was fascinated by chess problems, too, and one of his more amusing papers shows that it is possible (if not necessarily desirable) to move a knight across every square of the board.

Then, in 1825, came his paper "Explanation of an Optical Deception in the Appearance of the Spokes of a Wheel Seen Through Vertical Apertures," which is regarded as seminal by modern historians of the cinema. The impetus for the paper came about by chance. Early one morning soon after his marriage, at home in Bloomsbury, Roget, according to Emblen, had been gazing up idly from his basement kitchen, from behind a vertical venetian blind, at the passing traffic. The slats of the blind, he suddenly noticed, broke the movements of passing carriage wheels into a jerky series of still pictures. Depending on the speed of the carriage and the position of his eyes, the spokes of the wheel appeared to bend, to curve sometimes backward, sometimes forward. When he moved his head up and down, he noticed that the image changed. He dashed outside and paid a driver a shilling to drive his carriage back and forth along the street while Roget jotted down notes and made sketches. All the while his new wife, Mary, was upstairs tapping her feet, waiting with the breakfast kedgeree cooling in the dining room. Life as Mrs. Peter Mark Roget was, she soon came to understand, invariably odd.

The paper her husband then published led in time to what Marshall McLuhan and others recognized, in Emblen's words, as "another dimension for human existence"—the motion-picture industry. For, as Roget concluded, "an impression made by a pencil of rays on the retina, if sufficiently vivid, will remain for a certain time after the cause has ceased." Persistence of vision had been discovered; the Zoetrope, the Praxinoscope, and the CinemaScope were just waiting to be invented, and 6,000 miles westward Hollywood awaited its founding.

But there was another, more soberly philosophical side to Roget's raft of achievements and ambitions. He seems to have been—sentimental though this may sound in today's cynical climate—a thoroughly good person, suffused with ideals about the society of which he was a privileged member. He held a profound belief in the right of ordinary men and women to know things—to be able fully to appreciate the wonders and complexities of the world. He was influenced by Jeremy Bentham's ideas of utilitarianism, which sought to promote the spread of happiness to the greatest possible number of people. He offered his medical services free to those who couldn't pay. He was a keen supporter of preventive medicine—urging reforms, for example, in London's water supply (and proposing a method of water filtration through sand that is still in use today). He was a founding member of the short-lived Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and he wrote a series of sixpenny treatises—on electricity, galvanism, magnetism, and electromagnetism—that were intended to help poorer and less educated people learn what he and his kind already had the privilege of knowing.

He also (as already mentioned) contributed about 300,000 words to the well-regarded seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Of these, 150,000 words went for one major treatise, Physiology; the remainder were divided appropriately among the articles Ant, Apiary, Baldinger, Sir Joseph Banks, Barthez, Beddoes, Bee, Bichat, Brocklesby, Broussonet, Camper, Crawford, Currie, Deaf & Dumb, Kaleidoscope, and Phrenology (of which he was deeply scornful). Although some of these articles have survived, much cut, into the modern era (an article on Marie-François-Xavier Bichat, the French founder of the science of histology, is still there, and twice as long as the article on the man who first authored it), Roget's name does not survive in the index of the Britannica's contributors; today "PMR" is a blameless French museum curator named Pierre Rosenberg.

t remains one of the more curious aspects of Roget's life that in this fury of intellectual and socially reforming energy his deep interest in the English language did not become fully apparent until he was in late middle age. He was nearly seventy when, still living in his London townhouse, he began work on his Thesaurus, having just been forced from his post at the Royal Society to make way for younger, cleverer, more energetic scientists.

Roget was by no means bitter—he knew well his own scientific strengths and weaknesses, and he would have been the first to acknowledge that his great achievements to date, largely in the fields of description and classification, had not been marked by brio and inspiration. He settled down to his retirement, and yet equipped himself with a grand plan: if the God in whom he believed so implicitly allowed him sufficient time and energy (he was in fact granted a further twenty-one years, all of them healthy), he, by writing and thinking and organizing, would bestow on the kingdom of language the same order that Linnaeus had given to the kingdoms of animals and plants.

Such an ordering, Roget came to believe, would not just answer an intellectual need—it might well have benefits for society as a whole. He mentioned in the Thesaurus's introduction that it might even help to fulfill his long-cherished dream of fostering the birth of a universal language—"that splendid aspiration of philanthropists."

Ever since the turn of the century, when he first began delivering medical lectures in Manchester and London, Roget had carried a succession of notebooks. Few, if any, of the originals survived the fires of World War II. The notebooks contained list after list of words that appeared to Roget to be near synonyms or—as the lists lengthened and the notebooks multiplied—to belong to the same philosophical groupings. Roget's realization as a young man that words could be placed in classes would later underpin his making of the Thesaurus. This is the essential difference between Roget's accomplishment and that of the other thesaurus makers before and since: his was a conceptual thesaurus, whereas the others were merely arranged alphabetically or otherwise organized to be useful.

There is no doubt that Roget aimed to produce a volume that was likely to be helpful to some users. In his preface he used the word desideratum—he was creating something he felt was required or desired. The book was designed "to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express."

Tom McArthur, the editor of the monthly magazine English Today, wrote in the Oxford Companion to the English Language that Roget's clear intent was "not ... to define or discriminate [words], but to arrange them in synonymous and antonymous groups; it serves as both a word-finder and a prompter of the memory regarding words one knows but could not recall to mind."

Yet—and this is why I feel his book proved an ultimate and unwitting disservice to the language—Roget aimed, in selecting his supposed readership, very high indeed. His sixpenny tracts for diffusing knowledge may well have been intended for the artless and the educationally impoverished. His Thesaurus, on the other hand, was meant for users equipped with more finely honed intellects and with a very real lexical intuition. He surely never imagined that businessmen, students, and politicians would one day help to make his book such a commercial success. Had he done so, he might have organized his work in a signally different way.

His nobly Platonic vision was that the language could come to be seen as an ordered part of the cosmos, amply reflective of divine will and inspiration. He took an Aristotelian approach to his task as well, marshaling his subject according to the strictest logic. His organization was clearly of the moment: he believed in all sincerity that from out of the miasma of Victorian intellectual confusion could rise a gleaming pillar of lexical glory, a totem to the God who had made it all.

Once he had established his conceptual framework, he concluded that all words could be placed in one of six classes. "The purpose of this work," he wrote in the introduction to the first edition, "is not to explain the signification of words, but simply to classify and arrange them according to the sense in which they are now used, and which I presume to be already known to the reader." Those six classes indicate his staggering polymathy: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, Sentient and Moral Powers.

The first three cover the external world: Abstract Relations encompasses concepts such as order, number, and time; Space encompasses words relating to size and movement; Matter encompasses the physical world and the way in which people experience it with the five senses. The second three classes relate to the interior world of human beings: Intellect encompasses matters of the mind; Volition acts of will; and Sentient and Moral Powers (or, as modern Roget editors now call it, Emotion, Religion and Morality) the more profound matters of the heart and soul. As we can perhaps already see, it would take an extraordinary mind to discern such order and to impose it on the language we use.

Some might suggest that Roget was rather out of touch in assuming that such things were already known to or understood by his potential readers. Further, such an assumption, they say, casts doubt on Roget's utilitarian ideals. For how on earth could an average user understand something that few trained lexicographers—and, indeed, few philosophers of language—can properly comprehend (let alone agree on) today?

But that seems not to matter: a glance at a modern Longman edition of Roget's Thesaurus, published now by Penguin Press (1998) and edited by Betty Kirkpatrick, shows that the classification structure survives. However incomprehensible it may be, it is still the basis for the real Thesaurus, a century and a half later. Only in matters of the heart and soul has it been slightly changed, and only, in truth, for cosmetic reasons. The words within have changed, of course, with the times and the fashions—which is true of any thesaurus, dictionary, encyclopedia, or other work of reference that passes through new editions over the years.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 2001; Word Imperfect - 01.05; Volume 287, No. 5; page 54-86.