Monday, November 19, 2012

Organization man

Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) is so identified with his famous thesaurus, still in print more than 150 years after his death, that it would not be surprising if one found his name as a synonym for thesaurus in a thesaurus. "Roget has become a generic term for any book that supplies synonyms and antonyms," one editor has said.

One thesaurus in my possession, the 1975 edition of the Reader's Digest Family Word Finder, does, in fact, include Roget's name in its entry for the word thesaurus. It incorrectly gives Roget credit for the "basic concept" of the thesaurus. In fact, Roget's thesaurus was not the first. At least one book of synonyms goes back to the early 18th century, or about 150 years before Roget published his own.

In The Man Who Made Lists, his 2008 biography of Roget, Joshua Kendall tells that Roget, a physician and scientist, had one of these earlier books with him when, as a young man, he was giving a lecture on anatomy. "But scholars currently face a major difficulty," he started to say before adding, "No, that's not quite it." Then he consulted his synonym book and found "obstacle, embarrassment, rub, restraint, emergency, exigency, pinch, quandary and lurch." He decided that obstacle was the word he wanted, and he then restated his sentence.

Roget began work on his own thesaurus early in his life but didn't finish it until he was retired and looking for something else to do. His main interest was not words so much as order and organization. He had a compulsion to organize things, whether it was plant life, diseases or books. Kendall tells that Roget once hired a governess for his children primarily on the basis of her classification skills. She was a budding botanist, and Roget liked the way she thought, never mind her ability with children.

What was unique about Roget's thesaurus was not that it was a book of synonyms but that it was organized in an original way. He came up with nearly 1,000 concepts into which all the words in the English language could be divided. To find the right word, one first needed to determine the right concept. This proved a bit cumbersome for most people, so later editions retained the concepts - there are now 990 of them - but placed words in alphabetical order so synonyms would be easier to find.

One wonders if Roget would approve of the modern Roget's Thesaurus if he could inspect a copy. Would it satisfy or offend his own sense of order?

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