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Word Imperfect - Page 3
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o illustrate the cleverness of Roget's extraordinary classification system, let us track in the Penguin edition all the way through a single class of thought to its logical conclusion—to what, if we compared this with the Linnaean system of classifying life, we would call the thought's linguistic species or subspecies. Let us take the conceptual class Volition.

"Volition: the exercise of the will" is first divided into Individual Volition (the will of one) and Social Volition (the will of many). Under Individual Volition are five subclasses: Volition in General, Prospective Volition, Voluntary Action, Antagonism, and Results of Action.

Let us look at Voluntary Action, which may be Simple or Complex, and let us select Simple. The Heads—the paragraphs full of words, organized by part of speech and according to whether they represent the idea or its precise opposite—that fall within this classification are self-explanatory: Action, Activity, Haste, Exertion, Fatigue, Agent, Workshop, and their opposites, which are Inaction, Inactivity, Leisure, Repose, and Refreshment. Agent and Workshop, being neutral aspects, do not have obvious opposites, of course.

Under one of those Heads—let us choose Haste—are about 200 words and phrases that can properly be used to express portions of the range of this single idea. Some of them are nouns: dispatch, urgency, impetuosity. Rather more of them are adjectives: hot-headed, breakneck, slapdash, immediate. About seventy-five verbs connote individual voluntary simple haste, including scurry, bustle, fret, cut and run, make oneself scarce, whip, lash, bundle off. There are a few adverbs, such as feverishly, on the spur of the moment, with not a moment to lose, and a very few interjections—Buck up! Quick march! At the double!

Within any one paragraph the words are grouped according to the manner and context in which they are used—whether, for example, they are usually employed in colloquial or in formal circumstances. Roget persuaded Longman to allow him to organize the book's Heads into two columns, with words of opposite meaning across from each other. So set against Haste is (no, not Less Speed; there is precious little wit in Roget) Leisure. Among those arrayed against over-hasty is deliberate (though with no phonetic explanation to guard against the verb). Against expedite is, among others, while away.

In formulating this dual-column plan, however, Roget very promptly came up against a problem that has long plagued semanticists interested in synonymy and antonymy: in countless groups there are in fact not two but three shades of sense—the meaning, its opposite, and a middle ground. Beginning, middle, and end are one obvious example; past, present, and future are another. And the more the nature of the middle-ground word is subject to scrutiny, the more it changes. In some trinities noted by Roget in his introduction, the central word is the opposite of both the others—concavity, flatness, convexity, for example, or desire, indifference, aversion. In some groups the middle word is the standard against which the others are measured: sufficiency exists between insufficiency and redundance.

To rub in the difficulty of trying to make semantic order out of English linguistic mayhem, what about groups in which the middle word represents an imperfect state of the other two? Dimsightedness is less perfect than both vision and blindness. Semitransparency is a less perfect state than either transparency or its opposite, opacity. To take this a little further: damp is neither wet nor dry, tepid is neither hot nor cold—and neither of these last two middle words has a precise opposite.

So should there have been three columns in Roget's book? Roget originally thought so, but he eventually recognized the practical difficulties and the cost of such an arrangement, to which his publisher was hostile. The plan was dropped. But in and of themselves, such difficulties with the internal classifications of synonymy need not have made Roget the force for literary ill that I believe it to be. If anything, those difficulties served to remind people interested in the vocabulary what a superbly complex entity the English language is. They served further to enhance public respect for the language, and to emphasize still more widely the great care that needed to be employed to ensure its best use.

No, the central shortcoming in Roget's Thesaurus, as I see it, stems not from the book's troublesome structure but from something quite different—from Peter Mark Roget's Panglossian regard for the intellectual merit of his likely readership. Roget never imagined, for instance, that an Ohio sophomore majoring in political science might one day use his book to find a word with which to pad out a paragraph in a midterm paper. Roget never envisioned that paperback editions of his work would be stuffed into millions of school backpacks and satchels from Huddersfield to Hobart, or that a barely literate board chairman bound for Liverpool would have his secretary's volume by his side as he was writing his report to shareholders on the morning express from Euston.

Roget assumed, as he organized his work, that anyone who might chance upon it would be just as clever as he, just as accustomed to precise syntax, to scrupulous grammar, and to confident and impeccable word selection. Armed with this naive set of assumptions, he produced a book that was predicated on the misguided belief that, as he wrote in his introduction, users would guide themselves through the thicket of words by relying on what he grandly termed their "instinctive tact." Thus there was no need to explain what any word meant—because his users, with all their "tact," would know that full well already.

And so an icily precise classification was all that was necessary. Definitions would be so cumbersome to include, so time-consuming to assemble, so costly to publish, so unnecessary, so—so insulting to his highly accomplished readers. Thus, crucially, Roget, who already possessed a deep knowledge of the English vocabulary, decided not to include them. And yet, of course, neither the Ohio sophomore nor the Liverpudlian businessman had such knowledge. Neither had the ability to make proper use of the volume Roget created. For such as these, the Roget that they were persuaded to buy and to use—wrongheadedly and irresponsibly, in my view—provided no more than an unexplained and inexplicable list of quick fixes. Each user had a sudden want. Each needed a word. Each reached for the Roget—and presto! The way the book is arranged makes it all appear easy, a quick solution in an efficient microsecond. And yet, precisely because the users are ill-versed, and because the book makes utterly invalid assumptions about their knowledge, and offers no help at all in discovering what anything means, the word chosen with each presto! is often wrong. Sometimes very wrong. Often slightly wrong. And at the very least, frequently, curiously, and discordantly off. For example, a freshman student of mine, who admitted to using Roget, attempted to improve the phrase "his earthly fingers" by changing it to "his chthonic digits."

Each time such a wrong is perpetrated by way of Peter Mark Roget, the language, as spoken, written, or read, becomes a little worse, a little more mediocre, and a measure more decayed, disarranged, and unlovely. And that, I suggest, is why all Rogets should be shunned.

ack in the 1850s only a few recognized the potential shortcomings of Roget's Thesaurus. One of them was Edwin P. Whipple, who wrote a perceptive essay in the 1854 issue of the North American Review. His bitingly amusing remarks (which do not dwell on the extraordinary assumptions Roget made about his customers) deserve to be quoted at length, which Emblen does.
We congratulate that large, respectable, inexpressive and unexpressed class of thinkers, who are continually complaining of the barrenness of their vocabulary as compared with the affluence of their ideas, on the appearance of Dr. Roget's volume. If it does nothing else, it will bring a popular theory of verbal expression to the test; and if that theory be correct, we count upon witnessing a mob of mute Miltons and Bacons, and speechless Chathams and Burkes, crowding and tramping into print. Dr. Roget, for a moderate fee, prescribes the verbal medicine which will relieve the congestion of their thoughts. All the tools and implements employed by all the poets and philosophers of England can be obtained at his shop. The idea being given, he guarantees in every case to supply the word ... Indeed, if the apt use of words be a mechanical exercise, we cannot doubt that this immense mass of the raw material of expression will be rapidly manufactured into history, philosophy, poetry, and eloquence.

Seriously, we consider this book as one of the best of a numerous class, whose aim is to secure the results without imposing the tasks of labor, to arrive at ends by a dexterous dodging of means, to accelerate the tongue without accelerating the faculties. It is an outside remedy for an inward defect. In our opinion, the work mistakes the whole process by which living thought makes its way into living words, and it might be thoroughly mastered without conveying any real power or facility of expression.
A reference book of this nature and with this express purpose, Whipple continued, was certain to spread the contagion of literary mediocrity. What was needed was not more information (oh! how today's users of the Internet might consider that anew) but more inspiration. Not more words to make easy the expression of ideas but more energy to make more probable the conception of ideas. Not so much message, not so much medium—but more, many more, marvels of true creation.

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.)

Peter Mark Roget's primary intent in creating his book was a noble one—avowedly Platonic, Aristotelian, a monument to the Almighty and His purpose. Or at least it was until the very last minute, when Roget decided to include a feature he had earlier intended to forget—a feature that changed for all time the role that this remarkable book would play: an index.

When the index was finished, it was a miserly thing—hastily done, fully advertising the reluctance of its compiler. But because it made the book much easier to use—though in a way very different from what Roget had intended—it was to swell mightily over the coming years. John Roget worked hard to increase the size and scope of the index. Today the index to the British edition is twenty pages longer than the thesaurus itself. The index to Roget's International Thesaurus, in America, though set in a typeface two points smaller than that of the main body of the book, still occupies half the number of pages the thesaurus does; it would be far longer were it printed in the same size.

The index is and always has been what everybody uses. The classification system is something of which almost no user of Roget is even vaguely aware. I defy all but the specialists among readers of this article to claim that they knew, for example, that deodorant, henpecked, box-office, and consuetude can be found in a class Roget called Volition, or that dog collar, privet, fulcrum, and clotheshorse are in the class he called Space. However noble Roget's design, no one uses it and few care about it; if there was once a Platonic ideal for his book, it is subordinate to the relentless usefulness that was brought about, at a stroke, by the inclusion of the index. As Roget might well have grumbled, that index represents the chicane that separates the original intent of the book from its present vulgar function.

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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.