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The Man Who Created the Thesaurus

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Writers rely on the thesaurus when searching for just the right word to make a sentence perfect, ideal, flawless, consummate, and impeccable. Peter Mark Roget always comes to the rescue.

The Troubled Roget Family

Peter Roget was born in London in 1779, the son of a Swiss clergyman. The Roget family was stalked by mental illness.

When Roget’s father died in 1783, his widow began experiencing paranoia and psychotic episodes. Further back in the family tree, Roget’s grandmother was inclined to depression and probably was schizophrenic. His sister was also a depressive and had several nervous breakdowns.

His uncle was the British Member of Parliament Sir Samuel Romilly, a civil libertarian and opponent of the slave trade. In October 1818, Romilly’s wife Ann died. A few days later, the grief-stricken politician, in the presence of Roget, slit his own throat with a straight razor. Roget tried to seize the blade but it was too late and Sir Samuel bled to death in his nephew’s arms.

And, Peter Mark Roget had his own issues with mental disturbances.

Peter Mark Roget.

Peter Mark Roget.

The List Maker

It has been suggested that if Peter Roget was examined by a psychiatrist today he would likely be diagnosed as having an obsessive-compulsive disorder and would likely also be placed at the mild end of the autism spectrum.

In 2008, Joshua Kendall published his biography of Roget, entitled The Man Who Made Lists. He says that “As a boy he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery―that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes may befall him.”

He kept a daily list of the number of stair steps he climbed.

He had a phobia about dirt and had great difficulty coping with anything that was unpredictable or random. But, as with many people on the autism spectrum, he was highly intelligent.

I can’t write in my house, I take a hotel room and ask them to take everything off the walls so there’s me, the Bible, Roget’s Thesaurus and some good, dry sherry and I’m at work by 6:30.”

— Maya Angelou

Roget Man of Science

At the age of 14, Roget was invited to study medicine at Edinburgh University. He graduated in 1798, not yet 20 years old. He delayed starting his medical career until taking up a post in Manchester in 1804.

Between ministering to the sick he turned his inquiring mind to other matters. One of these was the invention of the log-log scale. It would be dangerous for this writer, someone who possesses a negative aptitude for mathematics, to explain this. Suffice it to say, Roget’s discovery made the slide rule possible, which was the essential tool of engineers for 150 years until the hand-held calculator came along.

One day, Roget watched a horse-drawn cart go past his lodging and noticed something odd about the way the wheels turned when viewed through the blinds of his window. What he observed and figured out was “the persistence of vision.” This is that the retina retains an image of an object for a 16th of a second.

This means that when we see movement we actually see a series of still images and our brains stitch them together to create the illusion of continuous motion. Another century would pass before this knowledge would be put to practical use in the form of motion pictures and animation.

(Although one has to wonder at the practicality of movies with the likes of Nicholas Cage, or Adam Sandler in them)

The Thesaurus Is Born

By the time he was eight, Roget had several notebooks filled with groupings of similar words. However, it wasn’t until he retired from medicine that he really got stuck into creating his thesaurus. He was provoked into this by Hester Lynch Piozzi, although that wasn’t her intention.

In 1794, this noble lady, born into a Welsh land-owning dynasty published a book with the long-winded title, popular in those days British Synonymy; or, An Attempt at Regulating the Choice of Words in Familiar Conversation.

In about 1840, a copy of this volume came into Roget’s hands. He was not a fan of Ms. Piozzi’s work and set about producing a proper dictionary of synonyms. He dusted off his old notebooks and set about organizing the English language into categories and sub-categories.

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of.”

— Burt Bacharach

Roget laboured for a dozen years on classifying more than 15,000 words. The result, published in 1852, was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition―Phew.

He called his book a “thesaurus,” from the Greek word for “treasure house,” and, it was a best seller. So far, it has rung up sales of more than 40 million copies.

He continued revising the work until his death in 1869 at the age of 90. During his lifetime, the reference work went through 28 editions. His son, John, continued to update the thesaurus, as did his grandson, Samuel. Today’s version of the thesaurus has a quarter of a million words.

The word “Roget” has become a propriety brand like Kleenex, Xerox, and Coke.

Peter Roget towards the end of his long life.

Peter Roget towards the end of his long life.

Bonus Factoids

  • In 2001, British author Simon Winchester wrote a 15,000-word article in The Atlantic magazine in which he criticized/denounced/censured/condemned/attacked Roget’s Thesaurus. He huffed and puffed that the work stopped writers from thinking by looking for “quick and easy solutions for . . . the middlebrow, the mindless, and the mundane.”
  • In 1932, a Kellogg’s Rice Krispies radio ad introduced the world to the catch line “Snap, Crackle, and Pop.” There’s a story, that might even be true, that the line was conceived by a copywriter who consulted a thesaurus looking for synonyms for “sudden, violent noise” and found snap, crackle, and pop.
  • J.M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan wrote about Captain Hook that “The man is not wholly evil―he has a thesaurus in his cabin.”
  • The poet Sylvia Plath leaned heavily on the thesaurus in her work; she called herself “Roget’s Strumpet.”
  • There’s a mental condition called monologophobia; it’s a fear of using the same word in a sentence twice. One of the modern era’s greatest newspaper editors, Harold Evans, once joked that if the writers of the Bible had suffered from the condition and had access to a thesaurus Genesis would have read “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was solar illumination.”

Sources

  • “The Man Who Made Lists to Fend off Depression.” Arthur Spiegelman, Reuters, March 27, 2008.
  • “The Man Who Made Lists.” Joshua Kendall, Putnam, 2008.
  • “Peter Mark Roget: A Man of Words.” Paul Vallely, The Independent, January 5, 2014.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Gilbert Arevalo from Hacienda Heights, California on March 09, 2021:

It's good information to know, Rupert.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 09, 2021:

Ha ha. I can relate, Rupert!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 09, 2021:

Well-rounded? Physically.yes because all the rounding arrived with middle age and some of it is certainly caused by beer.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on March 09, 2021:

Rupert, you cover such an interesting array of topics. You're a well-rounded writer with a friendly, yet informative style.

I, too, never considered the man behind the thesaurus. Who would have known that someone with such a troubled past would create a resource that would last through time and become a must-have for writers, students, anyone who puts pen to paper?

I think I would have gone berserk if I saw someone slit their throat and bleed to death in my arms. Roget had some tough skin, that's for sure.

I really enjoyed this article, Rupert. I always learn something from you while being entertained at the same time. That's why I love your style.

The Friends video was funny, too. You gotta love Joey aka juvenile kangaroo!

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on March 08, 2021:

Thank you for this interesting article, Rupert. I caught it in time to comment as well, which is great. I have an inferior thesaurus that barely suffices. I need to trade it in on a Roget's.

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on March 08, 2021:

His thesaurus didn't sell well in America until the crossword craze hit the country in the 1920s. Then, the books shot off the shelves.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 08, 2021:

I never gave thought to who created the thesaurus. We can all thank Mr. Roget for his list-making and the end result. It sounds as though, while troubled in some respects, he had a brilliant mind.

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