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Word Imperfect - Page 4
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his brings us again to the last of the three introductory questions: What have Roget and others in fact achieved? All the thesauri, word finders, and lexicons that compete for our attention and for hundreds of millions of dollars each year on the reference shelves and the back-to-school tables at Borders and Barnes & Noble have much to answer for. Some are crude devices for advancing lexical laziness; some offer amusing and intelligent ways of examining the marvels of the language. None has the biblical authority of Roget, however—which is why, though they merit brief consideration here, none will receive the withering blast that I think should be directed at the primary culprit. Roget may be a rogue; the others are just the naughty boys of the school yard, the hangers-on, the keepers of bad company.

There are many types, and there have been many experiments. An initial distinction should be drawn between conceptually arranged thesauri, of which Roget is the obvious example, and those—like the American Century Thesaurus, from Time Warner, and the Oxford Paperback Thesaurus, "in Clear A-Z Form with Most Useful Words First"—that have no truck with concept but are arranged wholly alphabetically. The relative benefits of alphabetical books can be fairly easily demonstrated—by seeing which words are included and which are not. Conceptual arrangements permit looking-up only in the index, and the indexes are not necessarily updated as frequently as are the word lists themselves; a new word may well be slipped hurriedly into the body of the book and left there as a serendipitous surprise.

Laurence Urdang, who founded the journal Verbatim and who has written or edited more than 120 dictionaries of various kinds, including the 1966 Random House Dictionary of the English Language—Unabridged Edition (he is currently working on a dictionary of historical nautical terms), has been responsible for various word finders, some high-minded, some pleasingly silly. His company, Verbatim Books, in 1982 published Word for Word, by Edward C. Pinkerton, one of the more serious (but far from solemn). It offers extraordinary chapters (with numbered lines, so complex a book is it) that show the links between seemingly unrelated words. The flap-copy tease is the relationship of armadillo, arthritis, harmony, reason, and rituals, all of which have some connection to the Indo-European root ar-, which means "to fit together." (On a more frivolous level, Urdang's alter ego, the suspiciously anagrammatic Claurène duGran, who is reputed to have "studied linguistics at Oxford and drama at Cambridge," put out into the world twenty years ago a book called Wordmanship, which offered the linguistically insecure a raft of suggested synonyms to make their daily lives richer and more impressive. She recommended using accipitrine for hawklike, discommode for inconvenience, and depilate for shave. The noun form of the third has in the past two decades indeed made its way into the language of Madison Avenue.) Urdang also gave us the Dictionary of Differences (1988), which offered an alphabetically arranged list of useful but easily confused words, concepts, and fancies: incredible and incredulous, baking powder and baking soda, and the pentarchy iamb, trochee, spondee, dactyl, and anapaest.

Urdang is thus in a good position to have favorites among the better-known thesauri, and one of them is Francis March's huge, out-of-print Thesaurus Dictionary: A Treasure House of Words and Knowledge (1903). White-bearded and benign, photographed for the book's frontispiece seemingly floating in an ocean of scholarly paperwork, March presides over the instructions to the reader. His aim was that of all the other thesaurus makers—though not so noble, of course, as Roget's ideal. He hoped that his method would help users "definitely express a given idea."

March's thesaurus contains a vast alphabetical list ranging from A-1 to zymotic. For each word—and, crucially, after the word's definition—it offers one or more pairs of words representing the range within which the particular word is used: for example, A-1 is given the range goodness-badness. The reader may turn to this recommended pair of words in the alphabetical list and come upon an immense secondary list of several hundred nouns, verbs, and adjectives, all with definitions, that offer synonyms and antonyms to A-1. Beneficence, bijou, value, and virtue on one hand; depravity, malevolence, peccancy, and pestilence on the other. And each of these words, too, has a definition.

But March's thesaurus requires work. One must make an informed selection from among the vitally important series of definitions offered in the range within which a word might be used. Regrettably, the demanding nature of the task seems to have ended publication of this unusual and rather wonderful book after little more than twenty years of life. Yet in terms of fostering the proper use of English, March's was in truth a very good thesaurus, for precisely the reason that Roget, which fosters showy mediocrity by offering no information, is a bad one. March suggested a range and then forced the reader to make a choice. Roget presented a list and said, essentially, pick a word, any word. March simply asked too much of the reader: in the matter of words, making choices calls for both a modicum of intelligence and a time-consuming process of thought.

Let us say you want to use Roget to find a word that means "habit" (relating not to the convent but to the ashtray or the essence of juniper). After looking up habit in the index, you find the above-mentioned consuetude; but as to what precisely consuetude means, the book is silent. Unless you take care to consult a proper dictionary, you have no idea whether it is suitable for your purpose. You are dimly aware only of its range of use, and of other words that share that range—cacoëthes, for example, surely one of the ugliest words ever made. No thesaurus except March's will tell you what on earth this word means either, of course. March's will tell you very fully: it will tell you that the word means "a bad habit" and that it lies in the usage range of habit-desuetude, and it will also inform you of the phrase cacoëthes scribendi, meaning an unbearable and indescribable itch to write—the itch, perhaps, that has compelled me to get this far along without summing up why I think Roget is, in the literary universe, such a serious force for bad.

Thesauri came about in the first place in response to the desire of men and women of society to speak and write more fluently; the immediate popularity of these books, like that of Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall, arose from that ambition. Some of them proved helpful; Piozzi's, unfashionably prescriptive though it was, suggested ways in which words might be used, and in doing so gave the language a nudge in the direction of improvement. The flowery barbarisms of inkhorn terms vanished within years of the appearance of her book—no cause and effect established, but the possibility observed.

Roget, however, was not intended to address the want of drawing-room conversation; it met a very different set of needs. The book's real popularity was achieved—and sales figures more than amply confirm this—in the immediate aftermath of one fateful Sunday in December of 1913. That was the day that the popular newspaper the New York World published in its supplement Fun a small matrix of black and white squares into which readers were directed to write words that, in some clever way, correctly responded to a list of clues printed alongside the matrix. The crossword puzzle had been born.

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.

o, 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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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.