I love the thesaurus, perhaps more so than the dictionary. I have a tattered copy of Roget’s thesaurus held together with a ducktape binding and revamped cardboard covers. I’ve had it since middleschool and it’s the one book I use on a regular basis.
So one might imagine my excitement at Prospect Magazine’s profile of the man behind the word lists. I never really thought about the man who created the thesaurus, much in the same way there is a story behind the man who created the Oxford English Dictionary.
Peter Mark Roget, the future Linnaus of the English word, began compiling word-lists at the age of eight. Why was he not playing with other children, honing his social skills? The problem was his mother, a widow at 28, who drained her son of sympathy. Catherine Romilly gave birth to a wonderful, handsome, talented boy , but couldn’t let him be himself. Independence, he would write in his Thesaurus under list 744, equals freedom of action, unilaterality; freedom of choice, initiative. But for freedom see also non-liability, disobedience, seclusion and liberation: the way one insists on freedom in the face of opposition.
And I feel compelled to share this passage about the thesaurus, which in many ways is often how I’ve felt about it.
Like a work of art the Thesaurus works on different levels. It helps generate new ideas and captures a hundred tarnished states of being, animate and inanimate, on every page. It’s an essay-writing tool and more. The Lists show exactly how a rich culture benefits from normative language, for if you don’t have the norm, how can you have the (shared) nuance.
It pains me to realize that Dr. Peter Mark Roget led a sad and solitary life and had scantly anything but his famous word lists to keep him comfort. [via]