Thesauri & The Man Who Made Lists

I recently read Joshua Kendall’s biography of Peter Mark Roget, entitled The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. While this book is fascinating, it’s also deeply flawed — especially for those of us who love lists, not to mention those of us who love thesauri and other reference books.

On the plus side, Kendall teaches us a lot about Roget’s background as a scientist and physician. We learn about his compulsive list-making as a child, whether it be names of farm animals in Latin or lists of the bones in the human body. We learn about his organization of all the concepts of the English language in later life. And we learn a little — but not nearly enough — about Roget’s mental problems and how he coped with them. These problems were relevant, indeed central, to the decision to create the first thesaurus in 1852. Compiling lists of words apparently helped Roget cope with depression, anxiety, and probably Asperger’s, though Kendall only barely touches on the last of these.

On the minus side, the reader gains almost no sense (despite the subtitle) of the importance of the thesaurus to Roget’s life and to the world. It’s just one incident among many. I was looking for details — lots of details — about how the thesaurus was compiled. The lack of details is rather ironic, given the subject of the book. And it reminds me of my issues with The Professor and the Madman. The other flaw is the offhand consideration of the likelihood that Roget had Asperger’s, though of course neither the name nor the disorder was known in the 19th Century. These flaws were not enough to deter me from finishing The Man Who Made Lists, but they certainly reduced my enjoyment of the book and meant that I learned far less from it than I had hoped.

Those who know me will not be surprised that I still have an old copy of Roget’s International Thesaurus, a copy that my father gave me when I was eight years old. As I say, people won’t be surprised that I have this, though they might be surprised that I could lay my hands on it so readily. Anyway, when I was eight, this “new edition” of the thesaurus had been out for nine years, so it slightly predates my own birth. It’s instructive to contrast the arrangement and organization of this edition with the modern alphabetical lists of synonyms that still claim the name “thesaurus.” My copy, published by Crowell, contains the following remarks in the Publishers’ Preface [note the subtle placement of the apostrophe]:

The basic principle of Dr. Peter Roget’s original Thesaurus was the grouping of words according to their ideas rather than the listing of words, as dictionaries do, according to the alphabet. This principle — the secret of Roget’s success — has been scrupulously preserved in the various Crowell editions for over sixty years. [Italics as in original

The difficulty with grouping words by ideas is that it can be very difficult to find a word, so this edition of the thesaurus contains an index that’s nearly as long as the body of the book. Be that as it may, Roget’s idiosyncratic organization of all possible concepts is a delight, as long as you don’t take it as a given truth. The schema is hierarchical and multi-level. For example, suppose you were thinking about prime numbers, but you couldn’t remember the terminology prime number. You would, of course, look under Class I (abstract relations), Section V (Number), Part 1 (Number in the Abstract), Category 84 (Number), Subcategory 2. You knew that, didn’t you?

Well, no, of course you didn’t; that’s why you needed the huge index. Anyhow, the subcategory in question reads as follows:

complement, subtrahend, multiplicand, multiplier, multiplicator, multiple, submultiple, coefficient, dividend, divisor, factor, quotient, fraction, mixed number, numerator, denominator, decimal, mixed decimal, circulating decimal, repetend, common measure, aliquot part, reciprocal, prime number, totient, quota, differential, integral, fluxion, fluent, power, root, radix, base, exponent, index, logarithm, antilogarithm, modulus. 

Note that this is most definitely not a list of synonyms! It’s a list of words that are conceptually related in some way. Reading it, you spot the term you were looking for (“prime number”) and your mind is also captured by a great many other words that are closely or loosely connected. What a loss to use a modern so-called thesaurus, where you probably can’t even find “prime number” unless you already know the phrase, and then you’ll simply find that there are no synonyms.

You can browse through Roget’s Thesaurus and learn something new on any page. All you are likely to learn from a modern thesaurus is some pretentious near-synonyms that will make you a worse writer.

Categories: Books, Linguistics, Teaching & Learning