Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Got Words?

I bought my first thesaurus from a Scholastic book order when I was in third grade. A paperback version of Roget's Thesaurus with a red cover and 572 pages. I still have it. The pages have yellowed and the well-worn cover is tattered and taped; in fact, it's practically falling apart it's been used so much, but even though I bought a newer copy of Roget's Super Thesaurus a few years ago, I just can't seem to get rid of my old one. It feels like an old friend. Every time I've needed to find just the right word, my little red thesaurus has come through for me. But I have to admit that in all the years I've owned my thesaurus, I have never once wondered about the man who created it.

The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall is a fascinating biography about Peter Mark Roget, the creator of my little red thesaurus. From childhood, Roget loved to classify and order things:  plants, animals, systems, and words. It's how he coped with life's messy chaos, and his own loneliness and anxiety. Extremely intelligent, Roget became a physician, practiced medicine, was a popular lecturer, wrote several scholarly papers on optics, electricity, chemistry, physiology, and even the slide rule. And he kept lists of words. A lifetime of words that, in 1852, he published as Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. He was 73. He continued to "tinker with" his masterpiece until his death in 1869, overseeing the publication of twenty-eight editions in his lifetime alone. What an amazing legacy. I, for one, don't know what I would do without mine.

About this wonderful book of words, Peter Mark Roget wrote:
"We seek in vain the words we need...The appropriate terms, notwithstanding our utmost efforts, cannot be conjured up at will. Like 'spirits from the vasty deep', they come not when we call; and we are driven to the employment of a set of words and phrases either too general or too limited, too strong or too feeble, which suit not the occasion, which hit not the mark we aim at."
"In every process of reasoning, language enters as an essential element. Words are the instruments by which we form all our abstractions, but which we fashion and embody our ideas, and by which we are enabled to glide along a series of premises and conclusions... It is on this ground that the present work founds a claim to utility."

Happy Reading!


  1. What a cool book! I love words and a good thesaurus too, but I never would have thought to look for a book about Roget himself.

    1. It was a fluke that I even found this book...but I'm glad I did.

  2. Love the story about your first thesaurus. My first Spanish-English dictionary (from 3rd grade) is held together by tape.