Roget's Thesaurus is more than just a book about words—and the story of its author's often unhappy life provides a suggestive counterpoint to its complexitiesby Lesley Chamberlain / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
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.
Catherine Roget née Romilly came from a well-regarded and successful London Huguenot family blighted by mental illness. After the early death of her Swiss-born husband, Catherine never recovered her capacity for normal life. Her own mother had been mentally incapable and Catherine slipped inexorably into a lesser version of her mother’s state. Shlepping with his sister backwards and forwards between London and the country on the wheels of maternal restlessness, Peter never felt he had a home, except in his wordlists. He worked on them in solitude, while qualifying as a doctor.
Fully fledged at 20, five years too young to practise, he was exceptionally able and also peculiar and solitary. He hated disorder and dirt. When he took a job accompanying two rich teenagers on their European Grand Tour, their notebooks revealed his crabbed and pernickety mind. He taught them to count the windows in cathedrals, and visitor numbers, and tally how many paintings were in a collection. He taught them to structure the world prosaically and reliably; at all costs to avoid emotional surrender. His response to both human and natural life was to classify it, the foundation of his great work to come.
Roget’s next job in London was a desperate couple of months living with Jeremy Bentham, working, in the pre-Bird’s Eye 1820s, on an unlikely project involving frozen food. The cat-loving philosopher was abysmally untidy and there were no locks on the bedroom doors. Addicted to privacy, Roget couldn’t retreat to his own room and his lists without encountering Bentham’s brother and his wife and a lot of cat hair. The born classifier couldn’t get out fast enough.
Then he was a volunteer testing nitrous oxide—laughing gas—as a possible cure for consumption. This was a high-class operation: the other guinea-pigs included Wordsworth and Coleridge, who enjoyed getting high in a good cause. But for Dr Roget this was torture. He got stiff with misery at being out of control and upset the statistics by claiming the gas had no effect.
One of the problems with Dr Roget, about whom Lennon and McCartney could have written a song, was that he wasn’t terribly interesting, despite his hangups and misfortunes. He finally became the top professor of physiology in the country, secretly stroking his word lists while addressing his first audience lest his vocabulary fail him. His new role in public life urged a new perfection of his long work in progress. Meanwhile he also made his mark in natural science. Darwin read Roget’s most famous work in his lifetime and held him in esteem for something about frogs’ toes. Aged 45, Peter Roget even managed to get married. Having frustrated several admirers along the way, he eventually made a happy union with a beautiful and intelligent woman 16 years his junior. Then fate hurled everything personal downhill again, with loved ones dying or going mad in quick succession. He got better at dealing with such things.
While the tidy functionality of Roget’s projected personality has been reproduced by a series of modern editors talking about his achievement, the latest of them in 2002, what still remains a mystery is the nature of Roget’s imagination. To flick through the Thesaurus, which he finessed for publication in his sixties, is to feel the enormous energy it took even to aim to structure all human experience in objective and specific language. The goal was to contain imagination within the parameters of the known world. As the young Wittgenstein would declare a century later, the world is everything that is the case. Roget hoped his lists of concepts would become an intellectual and a moral tool: a real mind-expander, not just a lexical crib. Groups of words like (list 60): disciplined, obedient, schematic, systematic, tidy, dinky, just so, suggest there was something of Aristotle in him, teaching us the golden mean, but also the name for the fallen standards we actually live by.
The irony is that what helped Dr Roget avoid emotion became the tool of others struggling to express it. Sylvia Plath, noting her first kiss with Ted Hughes, observed that she was two-timing him with Dr Roget. Dylan Thomas, observed one scholar drily, used Roget in place of inspiration.
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. At a deeper, unofficial level, the Thesaurus is obviously a clue to Roget’s psyche. See, for instance, the record number of paragraphs of sub-lists under the heading “Disorder.” Roget was a Freudian case half a century before Freud, and one might deconstruct his real magnum opus as a secret autobiography, to be matched alongside the recorded life. *
Yet that would be a pity, because the point of the Thesaurus is to be a bible of objectivity. For its merits, see list 3 under Substantiality, essentiality; subhhead: reality. Consider also list 494: True, objective, rational; certain, undisputed. Dr Roget’s 990 Lists are an enduring pleasure in deviant days.
* Joshua Kendall The Man Who Made Lists G.P. Putnam’s Sons 2008