In ancient times, pre-Internet, those searching for a word might thumb through a copy of Roget's Thesaurus, a process that could be educational as well as helpful. As with so many other things, the Internet has enriched this habit. I had wandered away from Roget over the years, perhaps wrongly imagining that it had no more to teach me, but the Web has happily brought me back, and given me a fresh appreciation of Peter Mark Roget's genius.
If I call up "thesaurus.reference.com" and enter the word "memory," Roget reminds me once more of the English language's wonderful thickness and density. More than 200 linked words appear on the screen, arranged in Roget's familiar pattern under 14 different concepts, from "experience" to "document."
One concept is "persuasion," by which he means the self-manipulation of memory. Typically, Roget directs us toward the verb "prod" and then lays down a series of near-synonyms: "egg on, excite, exhort, goad, goose, impel, incite, instigate, jog, motivate, move, pique, prick, prompt, propel, provoke, push, remind, rouse, sic, sound, spark, spur, stimulate, stir up, trigger, turn on."
He's describing ways to reveal hidden knowledge, and as it happens he's also showing us how his thesaurus awakens the sleeping dogs of memory. This is one of several places where Roget appears to be defining his own book. At his best he helps us revisit language we know but need to be reminded about. Everyone has a half-buried vocabulary consisting of words we understand but fail to recollect immediately. Roget leads us into this murky region, where we can find what we need, examine it in context, and by accident perhaps discover that there's more to our subject than we imagined.
A complex and beautiful machine, Roget's Thesaurus has nevertheless attracted, over a century and a half in print, a certain amount of condescension. How could it be otherwise for a book that has sold more than 30 million copies? Detractors consider it a tool for those who wouldn't need it if they had acquired sufficient vocabulary by reading and conversation.
Lately I've noticed an increase in anti-Roget sneers, apparently the result of a remarkably wrong-headed attack, 15,000 words long, that Simon Winchester published in the Atlantic Monthly in 2001. Winchester wrote that "Roget's Thesaurus no longer merits the unvarnished adoration it has over the years almost invariably received." Instead, he said, it deserves blame for "our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity."
And in the Times Literary Supplement last month, John Whale declared that words chosen from a published list, such as Roget's, are likely to be misused. He explained, with maximum smugness, that "The safest storehouse for writers to fetch words from is their own head." He concluded that Roget may help devotees of word puzzles and writers of headlines but should be avoided by almost everyone else.
He was reviewing A History of Roget's Thesaurus: Origins, Development, and Design (Oxford University Press) by Werner Hullen, which provides a new account of the book's genesis. Hullen considers synonymy, the use of words with roughly similar meanings, essential to communication. He expertly traces its development from Plato to the appearance of early synonym dictionaries in 17th-century England and then to Roget's achievement.
One of the great Victorians, Roget was a doctor who turned his mind to a dazzling range of subjects. He discovered persistence of vision (the way the retina briefly retains an image after it disappears), which led directly if slowly to the invention of cinema. The slide rule he developed became an essential tool for engineers and many others. He wrote about Dante, water purification, a test to detect arsenic, chess problems and the effects of laughing gas. He produced some 300,000 words, many of them on medicine, for the seventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
As a young man he began making a private list of words and phrases. In retirement he sorted them into 990 classes, created the first thesaurus organized by topics, edited 25 editions, and died in 1869 at the age of 90. Recent editors, keeping successive versions current, have steadily added new entries. The 1980s, for instance, introduced acid rain, creative accounting, Cabbage Patch dolls, bag lady and many more; zero tolerance, air-kissing, focus group, and road rage came in with the 1990s. While the book continually expands, its form remains stable, a tribute to Roget's shrewdly framed categories.
How can Roget loyalists counter the outrageous insults of Winchester and others? It's not enough to argue, as defenders are apt to do, that this flapdoodle amounts to no more than bald-faced bunkum, babbling balderdash and bullheaded baloney. Winchester's case comes down to an insidiously snobbish notion that Roget has fallen into the wrong hands: "Roget never imagined, for instance, that an Ohio sophomore majoring in political science might one day use his book to find a word with which to pad out a paragraph in a midterm paper ... or that a barely literate board chairman bound for Liverpool would have his secretary's volume by his side as he was writing his report to shareholders on the morning express from Euston."
Roget's introduction predicted that users would navigate his lists by using their "instinctive tact." Instead, as Winchester sees it, the Thesaurus offers snap solutions to verbal problems and helps students to appear learned without effort. Each time someone chooses clumsily from Roget, the language becomes "a little more mediocre, and a measure more decayed, disarranged and unlovely."
All this seems to me a spectacular case of missing the point. Christians used to claim that the devil can quote Scripture to his purposes, a way of saying that there's no book on Earth that can't be misused. Roget is perhaps less susceptible than most, since he sets before even the hastiest user more than a few hints of the riches awaiting anyone who decides to study English with care. He offers inadvertent education, perhaps even to those students and executives who fit Winchester's brutal stereotypes.
The Spectator once ran a cartoon showing a customer at the service counter of a bookstore. "I'd like to exchange this thesaurus," he says. "It's an undesired, uninvited, unnecessary, unrequired, unsolicited, unwanted, unwelcome gift." The gift Roget gave to users of English has turned out to be none of those things.