Monday, December 8, 2008




An event of profound importance in the history of the English language was a dinner party on June 6, 1928, held in the Goldsmith’s Hall near St Paul’s Cathedral, London. It was attended by 150 persons each monumentally distinguished in achievement and standing. It attracted the nation’s brightest and most wise—a stellar gathering of intellect. There were two bishops, three vice-chancellors, a dozen peers of the realm, 27 knights, Sir Ernest Rutherford, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Sir Henry Newbolt and J.R.Tolkien. The Prime Minister of England Stanley Baldwin proposed a toast to the Editors and Staff of the Oxford English Dictionary—twelve mighty volumes brought out after 70 years of labour. The Dictionary had 15,490 pages of single-spaced printed text with 414,825 words. There were 1,827,306 illustrative quotations. Rightly did the Prime Minister declare that the Oxford English Dictionary is the greatest enterprise of its kind in history.

Next only in importance and significance is the work of one man—he dedicated his whole life to this and he is Peter Mark Roget who is known for his “Thesaurus”. The book under review deals with both the life of Roget and his achievement. Roget (1779-1869) was a British physician, natural theologian and lexicographer. He is best known for publishing, in 1852, the “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases.”
Roget’s 250,000-word treatise was the culmination of his lifelong pursuit, begun in his childhood notebook, to organize the animate world. Incorporating the research of countless specialists in zoology, physiology and anatomy, Roget had produced a work whose comprehensiveness was breathtaking. He divided his treatise into four classes of physiology—Mechanical Functions, Vital Functions, Sensorial Functions, and Reproductive Functions.
“Specious phraseology could disseminate the seeds of prejudice and error”, according to Roget. “If the masses could learn to use language better, they might be able to right much of what was wrong with the world.” By organizing not just words but all ideas—knowledge—Roget believed that he was highlighting God’s achievements.

Peter Mark Roget was born in London. His obsession with list-making as a coping-mechanism was well-established by the time he was eight years old. The son of a clergyman, Roget studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. His life was marked by several incidents of sadness. His father and his wife died young. One uncle who held the highly respected position of Solicitor General of England committed suicide in Roget's presence. Roget struggled with depression for most of his life. His work on the thesaurus arose partly from an effort to battle depression.
One cannot but express awe at the quality of personalities involved with Roget. He studied “Natural Philosophy” under Dugald Stewart whose illustrious pupils included the novelist Walter Scott and two prominent future Prime Ministers, Lord Palmerston and Lord John Russell. Roget worked with or under James Watt ( inventor of the steam engine), Humphrey Davy( inventor of Miner’s Safety Lamp),Jeremy Bentham (economist and father of Utilitarianism principle). The strength of his intellectual powers was apparent at a very early period of his life; he was remarkable from his infancy for his insatiable thirst for books, and for his indifference to the common objects of amusement, which usually captivate children.
Roget retired from professional life in 1840 and about 1848 began preparing for publication the one work that was to perpetuate his memory. This was the catalogue of words organized by their meanings, the compilation of which had been an avocation since 1805.. During his lifetime the work had twenty-eight printings; after his death it was revised and expanded by his son, John Lewis Roget, and later by John's son, Samuel Roget.
Roget helped found the School of Medicine at the Manchester University. He was also one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Society, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine. He was a secretary of the Royal Society. He was charter member of a prestigious society, the Athenaeum Club, co-founded by Walter Scott. So esteemed was the club that Charles Dickens would regard his own election in the mid-1830s as a major milestone in his career.
He wrote numerous papers on physiology and health, a two-volume work on phrenology and articles for several editions of Encyclopedia Britannica.
These activities would be more than enough for most men, but Roget's insatiable thirst for knowledge and his appetite for work led him into many other fields. He played an important role in the establishment of the University of London. He showed remarkable ingenuity in inventing and solving chess problems and designed an inexpensive pocket chessboard. Among Roget’s achievements was the invention of a machine which finally became the familiar Zeotrope, using hand-drawn pictures. This heralded the advent of Motion Pictures.

Roget was the focus of the play "Synonymy" by Randy Wyatt. It tells the story of a graduate student named Gordon who rents out the last known residence of Roget to inspire him as he works on his dissertation regarding the English language and Roget's Thesaurus. The building, which was soon to be torn down, created a gateway in which Gordon found himself travelling back in time and meeting Roget and his daughter.
Roget’s work was inspired by two earlier texts; the ancient Sanskrit “Amarakosha” (380 A.D ), the very first arrangement of words by subjects, followed by the French “Pasigraphie” (1796 A.D).
Joshua Kendall, the author, is a language enthusiast and an award winning journalist who writes for Business Week and Boston Globe. His book is a thorough exploration of a lexicographer’s life and mind. He has a keen eye for detail and he tells in a gripping manner the story of an astounding person who made an astounding impact on culture. The book is a carefully devised narrative that brings out the history behind the Thesaurus which has become a constant companion to all who love and respect English.
An extract from Roget’s Thesaurus for those who have not seen it. The word I have chosen is “Exclusive”.

1. Not diffused or dispersed: concentrated, intensive, undivided, unswerving, whole. See COLLECT, EDGE, PART. 2. Catering to, used by, or admitting only the wealthy or socially superior: fancy, posh, swank, swanky. Informal : ritzy. See PLAIN. 3. Not divided among or shared with others: single, sole. See INCLUDE. 4. Singled out in preference: choice, chosen, elect, select. See CHOICE, INCLUDE

1 comment:

a.g.karnik said...

I very much liked the review of this book. The reference to Amarkosh is intering.Synonims are a part of grammer and grammer or Vyakaran,as far as I know,plays an important role in the Indian system of logic, and in Indian philosophy.