In praise of Roget’s Thesaurus

“The present work is intended to supply… a collection of the words… arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.”

– Peter Mark Roget, 1852

A recent translation exam, where only paper reference materials were allowed under the watchful digital eye of the invigilator behind my webcam, brought me back to Roget’s thesaurus. Having grown accustomed to the myriad possibilities of synonym lists on the internet, I had not opened it in years. The very things that had frustrated me the first time I opened were those that charmed me this time.

Roget’s intention was not to create a list of synonyms, but an anthology of words that could express every aspect of an idea. The 990 headings (down from the 1,000 in the 1852 original) are not arranged alphabetically, but according to a system loosely based on Aristotle’s categories of the world. A quick look at the plan of classification and you will see that the world as we know it is divided into six classes: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition and emotion. These in turn are divided into sections (existence, relation, quantity, etc.) and then once again into headings. Each heading is an initial idea that then opens up and leads the reader down a winding path of abstract notions. Existence becomes being, entity, subsistence, life, eternity, perpetuity, realisation, evolution, creation… and so on.

Peter Mark Roget was obsessed with symmetry, being a man of his age and a subscriber to the Victorian desire for order and harmony. By the age of 8 he was already an adept list maker, and it would later act as a refuge for him from the chaos and ill mental health that would plague his family.

Of course there is the reliable index in a more traditional dictionary style, but the book also constructs a framework of words and related meanings that spread outwards in ever increasing patterns, one half of the spiderweb in synonyms and the other in antonyms. While I frequently scrambled through the index during my pressurised exam time, I did find myself being enticed down different paths and notions by a list of words that seem to sprout from the page and trail off in different directions. Its design nudges you to detach yourself from the language you know so well and observe it from a distance. This new perspective gives you a greater sensitivity to the nuance of meaning. This not just a very useful tool for a linguist, but an essential skill for anyone.

Recently the book was named in The Guardian’s 100 best non-fiction books. One perceptive commentator made the point that the fact that Roget had been particularly concerned about accuracy in the use of language and how “false logic might sway the unthinking multitude”, was more relevant now more than ever in our present political discourse. If he had only known that it is far more than the “unthinking multitude” that is swayed by calculated distortions of language.

Reading Roget’s thesaurus reminds me of browsing in a secondhand bookshop