In his biography of Roget, The Man Who Made Lists, Joshua Kendall argues that Roget created a “paracosm,” or alternate universe, in the orderly lists of words he began making in childhood: “both a replica of the real world as well as a private, imaginary world.” The thesaurus that would grow out of the lists was even more hyperorderly. The unruliness of language—and the world of concepts that words denote—could be tamed in his pages. When he discovered that he actually had 1,002 concepts listed instead of his planned 1,000, he simply condensed two entries to achieve his round number: “Absence of Intellect” became 450a and “Indiscrimination,” 465a.
Roget’s thesaurus was crucially a conceptual undertaking, and, according to Roget’s deeply held religious beliefs, a tribute to God’s work. His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel. By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam. Though we no longer cling so tightly to these Enlightenment notions about language in our postmodern age, we still carry with us Roget’s legacy, the view that language can somehow be wrangled and rationalized by fitting the lexicon into tidy conceptual categories.
Roget intended for his readers to immerse themselves in the orderly classification system of the thesaurus so that they might better understand the full possibilities for human expression. As Roget first conceived it, the book did not even have an alphabetical index—he included it later as an afterthought. His goal, then, was not to provide a simple method of replacing synonym A with synonym B but instead to encourage a fuller understanding of the world of ideas and the language representing it.
In England, the Thesaurus was widely praised upon publication. The Westminster Review lauded the work’s “ideal classification,” which meant that “the whole Thesaurus may be read through, and not prove dry reading either.” An international edition would eventually popularize his work in the United States as well, becoming a household item in the 1920s during the crossword craze. Eventually “Roget” would become synonymous with the thesaurus itself, even if many of the contemporary reference works that bear his name share little resemblance to his careful classification system.
More than a century and a half later, the impact of Roget’s creation continues to reverberate in the proliferation of thesauruses, both in print and electronic varieties. Yet the thesaurus has also come under fire time and time again—what does it have to offer the modern writer?
Qualms about the proper use of the thesaurus go back to Roget’s original. An anonymous review in the September 1852 issue of The Athenaeum voiced the concern that the thesaurus would simply be used as a “crutch” for writers, who would be better off avoiding “the frequent recurrence to a work of this kind.” The view of it as a mere crutch persists to this day, especially among writers of fiction and poetry who see the frequent consultation of it as somehow impeding natural expression. Consider this pronouncement from Stephen King in a 1986 piece for The Writer:
You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.
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