The word geek

Christine Smallwood is associate literary editor at the Nation and co-editor of the Crier.

IN 1854, when Peter Mark Roget’s “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases” arrived on these shores, Harper’s magazine noted that its “practical utility, we think, is overrated by its author.” It asked whom the “Thesaurus” (Latin for “treasure” or “treasury”) was meant to serve: “[T]he beginner in composition will seldom find it convenient to avail himself of such an aid,” while “the practiced writer, on the other hand, is naturally in possession of a vocabulary, which renders the habitual consultation of such a work superfluous.” The right words “are not derived from any collection of lifeless, abstract phrases; but they are impressed on the mind from the pages of genius and inspiration, from the charms of conversation, from listening to impassioned eloquence . . . in the fresh glow and radiant colors of vitality, doing actual service in the cause of truth and natural emotion, and reproducing themselves like the invisible lines of magic writing on being brought under the influence of fire.”

The cause of truth? The influence of fire? Clearly, the editors of Harper’s had never met an undergraduate pulling an all-nighter.

A century and a half after Harper’s weighed in, Joshua Kendall has published “The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus.” Here is truth in advertising. Word geeks -- who fancy a nuanced discussion of synonyms; whose temperatures rise reading a history of the various editions, additions and excisions; who lock horns in lusty debate over the utility of, or damage wrought by, this ubiquitous semantic aid -- must look elsewhere. This is a portrait of Dr. Roget (1779-1869). It is not etymology that awaits, but psychology.


Roget’s life was marked by trauma. His father, a Swiss Huguenot pastor who immigrated to London, died of tuberculosis when Roget was only 4. His maternal grandmother had been mentally ill, and his mother’s clingy neuroses -- maligned by Kendall at every turn -- ultimately blossomed into full-blown insanity. She ended her life “trapped in a psychotic trance,” as “that staple of nineteenth-century British fiction -- the ‘crazy aunt.’ ” His sister and his daughter suffered depression and breakdowns, and his beloved uncle, the famous statesman Sir Samuel Romilly, slit his own throat and died in Roget’s arms.

From the age of 8, Roget made lists of words as a way to cope with these burdens, Kendall argues. Like so many of his generation, Roget was profoundly influenced by Carl Linnaeus, who earlier in the 18th century had created a system of taxonomy for the whole natural world (readers may recall “kingdom, class, order, genus, species” from their high-school biology class). Inspired also by the philosopher Dugald Stewart, who listed “the imperfections of language” as one of eight causes “of the slow progress of human knowledge,” and by his mother’s “fragile sense of self,” Roget ended by creating both a tool that would serve the moral purpose of clear expression and a safe haven for himself -- a place of order in the chaos of his personal life.

In 2001, Simon Winchester, author of “The Professor and the Madman,” on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, threw a bomb at Roget’s handiwork in the Atlantic Monthly, calling it a “serious force for bad” and condemning it for encouraging people to brainlessly bandy about half-dollar words, even when the sentence calls for the two-cent variety. Yet Roget designed his thesaurus to be used not as a shortcut for easy substitutions but as a place for learning how words relate to one another. The index, an alphabetized list of synonyms, was an afterthought. The bulk of the book classified 15,000 words according to 1,000 “thematically arranged concepts” in six categories: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition and affections.

Roget was an intellectual omnivore. He was a respected physician and lecturer, whose obsession with classification also yielded his Bridgewater Treatise, a study of the four branches of physiology (mechanical functions, vital functions, sensorial functions and reproductive functions). Though he was better known for organizing the research of others, his pioneering work in optics led to the creation of the zoetrope, the grandfather of moving pictures. He invented the log-log scale, precursor of the modern slide rule. He also briefly aided philosopher Jeremy Bentham on a doomed project to create a “frigidarium,” an underground warehouse in which meat, fish and produce could be stored to offset food shortages. (Bentham’s refrigerating equipment was “in such great disorder and covered with such a pile of dust” that the fastidious Roget was scarcely able to work.) He was elected fellow, president and secretary of various royal, literary and medical societies. And he was among the few who inhaled nitrous oxide (for research purposes) without finding, as fellow experimenter Samuel Coleridge did, “more unmingled pleasure than . . . ever before experienced.”

“The Man Who Made Lists” is brisk and vivid, with Kendall coloring between the lines left by history. Of Roget’s first lecture on physiology to medical students in 1806, he writes: “Roget quickly averted his eyes . . . , preferring to look straight down at his papers on the podium. He continued staring at his syllabus while with his right hand he gently stroked his book of lists, which lay at the bottom of the pile.” Come to think of it, word geeks may find something to get their temperatures up.