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Roget for Moderns

The words of English get the Oxford treatment.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By EDWARD SHORT
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Roget for Moderns

The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford
English Dictionary

edited by Christian Kay,
Jane Roberts, Michael Samuels, and Irené Wotherspoon Crane
Oxford, two vols., 3,952 pp., $395

Virginia Woolf once said that the word for writing should not be composition, which hardly gives an accurate idea of the stitching and unstitching that writing requires, but revision. Like Cardinal Newman and Winston Churchill, Woolf wrote standing up, so the onerousness of writing was something of which she was particularly conscious. But whether standing or sitting, all writers must not only choose but find their words, and that can be madly frustrating. 

Enter Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), the polymath behind the eponymous Thesaurus who, for generations, has come to the rescue of word-hunting writers. Born in Soho, London, Roget was the son of the Huguenot pastor of the French Protestant church on Little Deab Street. His mother was the sister of Samuel Romilly, the parliamentarian and law reformer, from whom he inherited his peculiarly methodical intelligence. After obtaining a medical degree at Edinburgh, Roget went on to distinguish himself in a number of different métiers before devoting himself to his Thesaurus

He practiced medicine in Manchester, lectured on animal physiology in Bloomsbury, collaborated with Jeremy Bentham on a scheme to invent a food-preserving “frigidarium” decades before the refrigerator was invented, advised the Millbank penitentiary during an epidemic of dysentery, advised Her Majesty’s Government on London’s water supply, became private secretary to Viscount Howick (later the Whig prime minister Earl Grey), worked out chess problems that had baffled players for centuries, invented the logo-logarithmic slide rule (which would later solve many hitherto unsolved problems in electrical engineering), and was the author of over 100 publications—including one that demonstrated that if a revolving carriage wheel was viewed through a vertical Venetian blind the boards would not obstruct the appearance of continuous movement, a finding which would have huge implications for the motion picture and the stroboscope. 

Beginning in 1805 and throughout his endlessly inventive life, Roget made entries in notebooks, which were like lexical storehouses designed to bring the wild variety of English under a classifiable rule, though it was not until he was 61 that he managed to work on the project full-time. As a result of his far-ranging reading, Roget was aware that others had attempted to classify words. The Sanskrit grammarian and poet Asmarha Sinha had compiled a classification of Sanskrit words called the Amata-Kosha in the fourth century. And in the late 18th century another classification of words was published in Paris under the title Pasgragraphie. But no one had ever attempted such a thing in English. Roget set out to classify English words in such a way as to assist not only philologists but ordinary readers, writers, and researchers. He completed his mammoth task when he was 73 and it was published by Longman in 1852. By the time of his death, Roget’s Thesaurus had gone through 28 printings, wearing out the original plates. 

In 1952 Everyman’s Library brought out a revision of the world-famous Thesaurus to mark its hundredth anniversary, in which the editor wrote: 

In the course of its century of use Roget’s Thesaurus has come to be as widely accepted and as indispensable to writers as a dictionary, and its system and arrangement have become so familiar that any radical alteration of them would lessen the value of the book to those who know their way about it from constant use. For that reason no attempt has been made to modify the main scheme which Roget originally laid down.

 

Nearly 60 years later Roget is still in print, and crossword-puzzle aficionados, writers, poets, students, journalists, and word-desperate reviewers are as reliant on its helpful classifications as ever. Now Oxford University Press has published a two-volume historical thesaurus, based on the Oxford English Dictionary, which completely renovates Roget’s scheme.

Based on 40 years of research conducted by a team of 230 scholars at the University of Glasgow, this Historical Thesaurus offers not only more classifications but more precise classifications, comprising 236,400 categories and subcategories. 

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