In Praise and Laudation of the Most Excellent and Illustrious Roget

Today represents an important day in the annals of history. I could even say it is hugely significant, or momentous, or earthshaking.  It is a day I believe should be a major holiday of great consequence. Because today is the 169th anniversary of the publication of the life’s work of Peter Mark Roget.

The guy had spent a long career as a physician, tutor, and inventor. He’d written numerous papers on health and physiology, served twenty-one years as secretary of the Royal Society, and was the founder of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Information. But his biggest, most consequential contribution that should not be overlooked, sneezed at, or considered chopped liver resulted from an early habit of making lists.

Beginning in 1805, at the age of sixteen, Roget started making lists of words and phrases, grouping them together into a classification system based on their rough meanings. By the time he retired from medicine in 1840, he had a really long list. I mean like it was extensive and far-reaching and at times probably seemed interminable.  

And so, he spent his retirement collecting, gathering, assembling, and scraping together a book for “those who are painfully groping their way and struggling with the difficulties of composition.” He called it Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition, because as good as he was with words, Roget was not so swell with snappy titles.

Today it’s just known as Roget’s International Thesaurus. It’s in its eighth edition and has been continuously in print, aiding and assisting, helping and supporting painfully groping writers since April 29, 1852.

Even Sylvia Plath, who was pretty good with words, once referred to her thesaurus as the book “which [she] would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible.” I’m not sure I’d go that far, or exaggerate that much, or hyperbolize in quite that way, but I do appreciate a good thesaurus. I own three and I use them extensively.

One is an early edition from 1866, great for looking up nineteenth century phraseology, circumlocution, or idiocism. The second is a pocket edition, useful for carrying in a purse, bag, clutch, or tote. And the third is the seventh edition of Roget’s International Thesaurus, which contains more than 325,000 words and phrases and consists of 1,282 pages of sizeable, colossal, and monumental awesomeness.

Okay, I admit I may be a little bit obsessive, affected, or overly-stricken by my plethora, or in other words superabundance of thesauri (or thesauruses because apparently either is acceptable) and with the contribution to the world of lexicography by Peter Mark Roget. But as a painfully groping writer, I plan to celebrate, make merry, and paint the town red. I might even splurge and buy myself an eighth edition Roget’s International Thesaurus just to mark the day.

22 thoughts on “In Praise and Laudation of the Most Excellent and Illustrious Roget

  1. I know my thesaurus came in handy when I needed to get rid of a bunch of idiots. In my manuscript, that is. I don’t think there’s any way of getting rid of the real live idiots out there.

    Synonym rolls…hahahahaha!

  2. Roget was such an adroit, talented, masterly, virtuoso expert at words! When I was a kid my Mum had a paperback edition, used so much – including by me – that the binding fell apart (I inherited all the family dictionaries, but, alas, not the Thesaurus for that reason). My only sorrow, bewailment, anguish and lament is that the word ‘thesaurus’ also does not also describe some magnificent, glorious, outstanding and remarkable extinct reptile.

  3. Clearly, Roget is a necessary hero to mainly writers and the comic you used in this post was applicable to many of us! It also elucidated me on the many variations of his marvelous continually revised and updated tomes.

    I have modernized my Roget’s selections, having just put in the donation box my last paperback edition. I’d kept it all these years for my daughters to use, though I doubt either one of them (the archaeologist or the doctor) ever did. I now only use the one provided by Microsoft, possibly supplemented by searching in the online Urban Dictionary, when I’m looking for the right word.

    Of course, even when trying to limit myself to fewer sources, I often still find myself down a rabbit hole, just maybe not too deep! Words are just so interesting and so much fun! I know, writers also have unusual methods for recreation!

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