The Magazine

Roget for Moderns

The words of English get the Oxford treatment.

Feb 1, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 19 • By EDWARD SHORT
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

This is where the new thesaurus differs from (and improves on) Roget. As the Manx-born linguist Randolph Quirk notes in his foreword, the “veritable universal taxonomy” that the Glasgow team of scholars devised for this new work is “subtler and more detailed” than the scheme devised by Roget. In compi-
ling the book, the editors drew on prototype theory and cognitive semantics. The system of the Historical Thesaurus of the OED, writes Quirk, “has evolved in a recursive interplay between a priori postulation (and initial use of Roget’s categories)” and “the input richness of the OED material.”

Quirk brings his considerable expertise to bear to endorse the genuine marvels of the new thesaurus, which is not intended so much to supplant as to complement the earlier work. For the sake of convenience, most writers will still continue to use some form of a desktop Roget. But for writers and researchers looking for words for more exacting or scholarly purposes—or for word browsers of all kinds—the new thesaurus will be indispensable. And at $395 the two volumes are not cheap but they are a good investment.


The new scheme breaks down thus. There are three main categories: the world, the mind, and society. These are then broken down still further. Under the world, the book classifies the earth, life, physical sensibility, matter, existence in time and space, relative properties, and the supernatural. Under the mind are listed mental capacity, emotion, philosophy, aesthetics, will/faculty of will, refusal/denial, having/possession, and language. And finally, under society are listed society/the community, inhabiting/dwelling, armed hostility, authority, morality, education, faith, communication, travel/traveling, occupation/work, and leisure. This is the “veritable universal taxonomy” of which Quirk writes. 

Since the new book is based, like the OED, on historical principles, it gives the reader a sense not only of the range of the OED, for which it serves as a kind of map, but a detailed understanding of the historical evolution of finely classified strands of synonyms.

For example, the word “terrorism” entered the language in 1798 following the Reign of the French Terror, though the word “terror” entered as early as 1528, with the word “Turk,to connote terribleness, entering shortly thereafter in 1598. All of these words can be found under the heading “quality of terribleness.” But one can also find “terrorism” and “terrorist” under the heading “oppression,” where one will also find “tamerlane/tamberlaine” (1579-1632) and “sultanism” (1821). When two dates are given for a particular entry, instead of a single date, this denotes the first and last recorded OED citations for that sense.

Under “types of war” (there is no subcategory for “man-made disaster”) there are entries for “holy war” (1603), “crescentade” (1868), and “jihad” (1880). Under the heading “contending in battle,” there is a lively array of words, including “battling” (1300), “fighting” (1340), “joining the battle” (1548), and “buckling” (1563). Then again, more narrowly, there is “push of pike” (1596-1852) under “fighting at close quarters” and under “guerrilla fighting” there are two entries, “bushwacking,” an American term (1864), and “bush-fighting” (1760-1837). 

Then, under “contentment/satisfaction,” we have the word “appeaser” entering the language in 1869. Continuing along the trail, there are additional synonyms, under the general heading “bringing about concord,” “peace,” and the more specific subheading “appeasing/pacifying/propitiating,” including “gladung” (Old English), “mitigation” (1382), “queming” (1440), and “placation” (1589). Under the general heading “pacification” there is “peace-
monger” (1808), which the European editors gratuitously signify (“derog.”), though under “international politics/relations” they do manage to call a spade a spade by listing “appeasement” (1919) under “appeasement,” together with “Munich” (1938), “Munichism” (1941), and “Municheer” (1942). 

“Truckle” (1680) is another good illustrative word. Under the general rubric “be servile,” the book lists, among many others, “fawn” (1440), “creep” (1596), “spaniel” (1599), “grovel” (1605), “kiss (another’s) arse/behind/bum” (1705), “crouch the knee” (1815-1854), “kow-tow” (1826), and “toady” (1861). “Spaniel,” as the literary critic Caroline Spurgeon showed, was a word that obsessed Shakespeare.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 20 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers