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Roget's Legacy: Thesaurus as Tool, Thesaurus as Crutch

In part one of our interview with Joshua Kendall, we explored how his new book The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus illuminates the mental world of Peter Mark Roget, a man who escaped the disorder of his personal life by creating a very orderly thesaurus. In the second and final installment, Josh discusses the publication of the first edition of Roget's Thesaurus in 1852 and the lasting legacy of his monumental reference work, both for good and for ill.

VT: In 1805, Roget writes his first draft of the Thesaurus. And then he basically puts it away for a few decades. What was his impetus to return to it?

JK: I think one thing is that he had retired from medicine and he was thirsting for a project. Also, Hester Piozzi's book of synonyms was back in the news. She was a close friend of Samuel Johnson's, and her sensibility was she was trying to get people to think of the most elegant word. And I think Roget saw his Thesaurus as a chance to give synonymy a scientific footing. I think that's what inspired him in the late 1840s.

His major contribution to the field is the idea of the thesaurus. There was no thesaurus before Roget, only books of synonyms. Roget called it a "thesaurus" to give it a scientific anchor. He was also harking back to the Latin-English dictionaries that he used in the 1780s, back when he was writing his childhood word list, because in those days Latin-English dictionaries were sometimes called "thesaurus," the Latin word for "treasure" or "treasury."

His book wasn't just about helping people find the right word, although that was a big part of it. It was also about organizing the English language.

VT: Do you think he was disappointed when that kind of ordering might not have worked so perfectly?

JK: He wanted the Thesaurus to have a thousand concepts. The first edition actually contains 1,002 concepts, but when he discovered he had too many he made "Absence of Intellect" 450a and "Indiscrimination" 465a. So his world was perfect. He created a world that was neater than the world itself. And I think that made him feel comfortable.

VT: What would be an example of something that he didn't consider proper to include in this kind of classification system? What aspects of the English language would not fit?

JK: If you look at a modern edition of the Thesaurus, it lists all kinds of animals, different types of bears, various insects, or whatever. Roget wasn't trying to put all the animals in the world in the Thesaurus.

VT: He had already done that, with his work on physiology.

JK: Exactly. So it wasn't about just listing. When Roget would think of including lion, he's really talking about lion in its metaphorical sense, as a symbol of courage.

VT: There were theological underpinnings to his project as well. Both of the great works that he spent so much time on, the Thesaurus and his treatise on physiology, he thought of as tributes to God's work.

JK: Right, because Roget's paradigm, which goes back to William Paley in the first decade of the 1800s, would today be considered "intelligent design": the world reflects God's order. God put everything out there and it's the scientist's job to discover that order, to discover the intelligence behind the way of the world, or in this case, behind the way words are constructed.

VT: So he was at odds with Charles Darwin when The Origin of Species first was published?

JK: Yes, Darwin was trying to overturn Roget, although grudgingly he had to acknowledge that Roget was very conscientious and thorough. But Darwin rejected that paradigm of intelligent design in order to come up with his evolutionary theory.

VT: Thinking more about the religious aspect of the Thesaurus, is there something a bit God-like in trying to create this perfect, orderly world? Or if not relating it to God, perhaps to Adam naming everything in the Garden of Eden, the idea that you can return to a perfect Edenic language that's separated from all the messiness of the world?

JK: That's actually more apparent with Noah Webster than with Roget. Webster starts working on his dictionary in 1806. By 1810 he's through the letter B. And then he takes a ten-year jaunt into etymology, and he believes that all languages can be traced back to an original language. He tries for ten years to trace all words back to this original language. And there's really no empirical evidence for that, but it's precisely that attempt to recapture this perfect language of Eden. For Roget, that idea was in the background. But for Webster, that's what he was really trying to do.

VT: Let's talk about the life of the Thesaurus after Roget's death. You say in the book that it was eventually a big hit in the U.S., even though the first American edition was a bit mangled.

JK: Yes, the first couple of American editions. The editor was Barnas Sears, who was the Secretary of Education in Massachusetts, and later became the president of Brown University. Roget was a puritanical enough fellow, but Sears was even more so. And in that first 1854 edition, he takes out all the "dirty words."

VT: What exactly did he consider "dirty" that Roget hadn't already taken out?

JK: Words like aria and the ups and downs of life.

VT: So what was vulgar about the word aria?

JK: I guess maybe it was the Italians and all that passion. I can't quite figure it out. And in the second edition, he gets so much flack for doing that, he sticks those words in an appendix. But that of course is where everyone goes first, and it was a bit of a disaster. But it did make a comeback eventually when the international edition was published, which is actually the American edition. It's kind of like how the World Series is really an American product. And Webster's International is really Webster's American dictionary. But with the international edition, the Thesaurus became authoritative, and then of course it really gets a jumpstart in the 1920s with the crossword puzzle craze.

VT: So Roget's Thesaurus became a standard reference work that every household needed, in large part due to the crossword craze?

JK: In America that was the case, but in England it was immediately selling out. Roget worked on 28 editions in the last 17 years of his life. The American one didn't sell as well, but it did become a bestseller in the 1920s.

VT: That made Roget a household name, and made his name synonymous with thesauruses.

JK: Yes, and now every American publisher has a "Roget" thesaurus, even though most of them have nothing to do with the classification system, or with Roget himself.

VT: What about the reception of the Thesaurus among writers? There's the idea that it can be a great boon for writers, but at the same time some feel that there is something almost embarrassing about a writer needing to use a thesaurus. There's a tension there: it's something that's supposed to assist them, but at the same time you can't admit to actually having used it.

JK: It's complicated. There's one school of thought that the thesaurus is a crutch. Simon Winchester took that up most recently in his Atlantic piece in 2001. And he says rather hyperbolically that we should just knock off Roget and banish the Thesaurus.

But I think it all comes down to how it's used. It's like any other piece of new technology, whether it's television or the Internet. It can be used for good or it can be used for ill. With poets, there's the example of Dylan Thomas, who used the Thesaurus a lot for his late poetry.

VT: But Dylan Thomas probably never would have admitted to that. It was just something found out posthumously, right?

JK: In Dylan Thomas' case, it was probably a crutch, as has been revealed. He was drinking, he was an alcoholic the last few years of his life, and he was probably leaning on Roget a bit too much. Sylvia Plath loved the Thesaurus, but perhaps wrote better poetry when she relied on it less. She used it for "The Colossus," but in the "Ariel" poems that were published after her death, she really found her voice. And that may have had something to do with using it less.

At the same time, it is a wonderful resource. So I just think it really just depends on how it's used. And if you use it, if you rely on it too heavily or if you used it instead of thinking or instead of feeling, as I imagine Dylan Thomas had to use when he was drinking so much, then it is kind of a crutch.

But what Roget really intended was for people to use it not as a shortcut, but to use it to think harder because he respects the reader. He just gives them options. And he wanted people to just thumb through it and to think about different possibilities and different ways of expressing themselves.

VT: So that explains why he only put in the index as an afterthought? He wanted people to surround themselves in this world of ideas?

JK: He didn't want people just to use it the way they use the Microsoft Word thesaurus feature: use it for a second, fill in the blank. He wanted people to really think about what they're trying to say and what the possibilities are. And he wanted them to immerse themselves in his classification system.

VT: Do you feel that there is too much of a tendency to have that kind of instant gratification, "I've already used Word X previously in the paragraph and I can't repeat it, so find me Word Y that means the same thing"?

JK: Right, those are shortcuts and I think that's not really what Roget had in mind. And perhaps another reason why his book and his life have a special meaning for us today is that we're losing touch with words. I have a friend who's just starting a career as a college teacher here in Boston, and she says that some of the freshmen use text messaging shorthand in term papers and the like. People are losing touch with what words mean. Roget thought that the process of searching for words, searching for clarity, was critical to the functioning of a civil society.

VT: Are there ways that you see new technology actually aiding in that vision that Roget had of guiding people into a better understanding of the way that language works and the way that words are connected to each other?

JK: Again, I don't think it's about the technology. I think that resources like the Visual Thesaurus, those are great tools. It's just a question of how people use them. It's a tragedy that we live in a culture where people are constantly taking shortcuts and then don't really think about how they're expressing themselves. If they use these tools to avoid thinking, we're in trouble. But if they use these tools to keep thinking, then we all benefit.

Click here to read more articles from Word Count.

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