Another interesting book to add to the list. -- Dallas

A Man of Many Words

For more than 150 years, writers of all stripes have relied on Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrasesas an elegant, essential aid to finding le mot juste. The poet Sylvia Plath once memorably referred to herself as “Roget’s strumpet.” In newsrooms, the thesaurus was issued to reporters and editors along with a dictionary. But, whether on deadline or in pursuit of a rhyme, which of us knew that behind the long lists of arcane synonyms lurked a creative, obsessive scientist, bent on imposing order on a chaotic universe?

The thesaurus, first published in 1852, was composed intermittently over several decades by Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869), a British physician. According to Joshua Kendall’s workman-like biography, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus (Putnam), Roget devised his celebrated lists in large part as a defense against the family maladies of anxiety and depression. Mental illness claimed, to varying extents, his grandmother, mother, sister, daughter and, perhaps most tragically, his uncle.

Grief-stricken over his wife’s death, Sir Samuel Romilly, a member of Parliament who had been a surrogate father to Roget, slit his own throat with a razor when Roget was 39 and died in his nephew’s arms. To Roget, who had lost his father as a young child, the experience was shattering, and Kendall says it made him veer away from his career in clinical medicine.

Without quite nailing the case, Kendall diagnoses Roget with obsessive-compulsive disorder (on top of depression) and quotes Freud in support. He notes, too, that Roget’s passion for classification extended well beyond language, to nature itself. The thesaurus was more than a series of word lists, Kendall points out. It was a means of organizing concepts and experience. “I classify, therefore I am,” was the ruling principle of Roget’s life, and it shaped his later career as a science writer who organized and disseminated contemporary knowledge in fields such as physiology, electricity and magnetism. 

The Man Who Made Lists usefully reminds us of our tendency to reduce human complexity to caricature, especially when the subject is no longer around to complicate the picture. Like ancient Greek gods, dead heroes tend to be associated with a single defining trait or attribute. The same thing may go for dead inventors. We know Roget today, if we know him at all, from the thesaurus. Death has shrunk him from what he was in life: a polymath whose achievements included not just a classic physiology treatise but an optical discovery – about how the eye perceives a series of still pictures as continuous -- that led to the invention of the movies. [continue]

Tags: Roget, language, linguistics, thesaurus, vocabulary

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