Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases
by Peter Mark Roget
I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in dark streets.
I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.
—Billy Collins, “Thesaurus”
It has become something of a literary cliché to bash the thesaurus, or at the very least, to warn fellow writers that it is a book best left alone. Some admonitions might be blunt, others wistful, as with Billy Collins musing on his rarely opened thesaurus. But beyond the romantic anthropomorphizing of words needing to break free from “the warehouse of Roget,” what of Collins’ more pointed criticism, that “there is no/such thing as a synonym”? That would suggest that the whole enterprise of constructing a thesaurus is predicated on a fiction.
It is only a fiction if one holds fast to the notion that synonyms must be exactly equivalent in their meaning, usage, and connotation. Of course, under this strict view, there will never be any “perfect” synonyms. No word does exactly the job of another. In the words of the linguist Roy Harris, “If we believe there are instances where two expressions cannot be differentiated in respect of meaning, we must be deceiving ourselves.”
But the synonyms that we find gathered together in a thesaurus are typically more like siblings that share a striking resemblance. “Brotherly” and “fraternal,” for instance. Or “sisterly” and “sororal.” They may correspond well enough in meaning, but that should not imply that one can always be substituted for another. Consulting a thesaurus to find these closely related sets of words is only the first step for a writer looking for le mot juste: the peculiar individuality of each would-be synonym must then be carefully judged. Mark Twain knew the perils of relying on the family resemblance of words: “Use the right word,” he wrote, “not its second cousin.”
No matter how tempting the metaphor, though, words are not people. We cannot run genetic tests on them to determine their degrees of kinship, and a thesaurus is not a pedigree chart. We can, nonetheless, look to it as a guidebook to help us travel around the semantic space of our shared lexicon, grasping both the similarities that bond words together and the nuances that differentiate them.
This was, in fact, more or less the mission of Peter Mark Roget when he published the first edition of his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in the spring of 1852. He organized sets of synonyms according to one thousand categories, neatly arrayed in a two-column format. Roget was utterly obsessive about making lists, keeping a notebook full of them as early as eight years old, and by age twenty-six he had compiled a hundred-page draft of what would become his greatest work. List making was a welcome relief from his chronic depression and tumultuous family life; it was a way of imposing order on a messy reality. In his autobiography, he would not bring himself to explore his personal troubles; instead he dispassionately noted places he visited, moving days, birthdays, and death days. He called it “List of Principal Events.”