History of Roget's International Thesaurus Part 1

About the major reference book Roget's International Thesaurus, history of the publishing and organization.


History: One day early in Victoria's reign, a mild-mannered, silver-haired English doctor sat down in his London study and opened the files of words that he had been gradually compiling for some 50 years.

Peter Mark Roget had long prided himself on his precise use of words. A physician by training, he was accustomed to such sideline pursuits as lecturing on anatomy; discoursing on physiology, cranioscopy, etc., for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; drafting public health reports for the Crown; thoerizing on optics and logarithms; and recording (as its secretary for 20 years) the endless proceedings of the Royal Society. But compiling a thesaurus was somewhat of an about-face. Such a project meant dealing with words, not as means, but as ends.

Thesaurus is a Latin term for "treasury," or "storehouse." It was an apt description for what Roget had in mind. From the start he discarded the dictionary method of starting with a word and advancing to its meaning; instead he began with a wide, general concept and progressed inward to categories of words which fell naturally within its scope. In so doing, he systematized the English language much as Linnaeus, almost a century before, had systematized botany, starting with the general and working toward the particular. It was an age that worshiped order, and Roget was a superorganizer.

Roget's original six major "classes" of ideas reflected both his scientific training and his Victorian morality: (1) abstract relations; (2) space; (3) matter; (4) intellect; (5) volition; (6) sentient and moral powers. (Today's Thesaurus contains eight such classes, including the first five from the original, plus physics, sensation, and affections.) From these major divisions came a multitude of subdivisions, within which were included all those words which bore a distinct relationship to the subject at large. The work was thoroughly indexed.

Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition (a typically long 19th-century title) was first published in 1852, to mixed reviews. The nonalphabetical approach was bewildering; not everyone grasped the essential logic of Roget's system at first glance. Then, too, previous synonymies (some 40 preceded Roget's) had also provided definitions, etymologies, personal opinions of differences, and citations from the "best" authors in the language. Roget disdained all of these. He assumed that a reader looking up a word not only already knew its meaning but also knew how to use it appropriately.

And the public soon caught on. For example, life was hell, but in Victoria's day you didn't want to say so quite so bluntly. So you consulted your Roget's, and there it was: "hell--a bottomless pit, place of torment, the habitation of fallen angels, Pandemonium. Ever-lasting fire. Purgatory, limbo, abyss." You could take your choice.

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