The use and abuse of the thesaurus

The compendium of words that Peter Mark Roget compiled over 150 years ago has many fans, and quite a few critics, too.

February 27, 2021 / 09:33 AM IST

 Look up a thesaurus for “bloviate”, and you’ll find words such as harangue, bluster, rant and rave. These synonyms capture the flavour of much public discourse nowadays.

As for the thesaurus itself, it’s been called the opposite of a dictionary. You consult a dictionary when you know the word, but not the meaning; you consult a thesaurus when you know the meaning, but not the word. Similarly, journalist and lexicographer Israel Shenker once quoted an editor as saying: “When you have a dictionary you look up a word you want; when you have a thesaurus you look up a word you don't want.”

It’s from the Greek for “treasury” that the word “thesaurus” is derived. As with other stores of wealth, some dip into it regularly, some use it sparingly, and some employ it for all the wrong reasons.

Many print versions available nowadays contain more than 3,00,000 words, but when Peter Mark Roget first published his compendium over 150 years ago, it had a mere 15,000. The difference between this and earlier collections was the way it was organised, which is what made it so influential.

Taking a leaf from 18th Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who divided animals into six classes, Roget allocated words into six groups: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. There were further subdivisions, of up to a thousand concepts.

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Who was Roget, and what drove him to try and impose order on an unruly world of words? In The Man Who Made Lists, Joshua Kendall delves into the life of this 19th century polymath, who happened to be a physician, physiology expert, mathematician, inventor, writer, editor, and chess whiz.

“Overwhelmed by the early death of his father and the emotional instability of his mother, Roget was constantly burying himself in books to cope with his sadness, anxiety, and anger,” finds Kendall. In addition, many of his close relatives fell prey to extended bouts of severe mental illness. For Kendall, Roget’s intellectual efforts and compulsive need for classification were ways of insulating himself from difficult emotions.

He completed the first draft of his thesaurus in 1805, when he was just twenty-six and working as a physician in Manchester. After retirement he began to revise it in earnest, and in 1852 it was published under the sonorous title, Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. By the time Roget died in 1869, at least twenty-eight editions had already been published.

Its impact was immense. Among the many admirers was J.M. Barrie, who described Captain Hook, the villain of his play Peter Pan, by saying: “The man is not wholly evil -- he has a thesaurus in his cabin.”

Later, Sylvia Plath wrote in her diary during her time as a Cambridge student: “Today my thesaurus, which I would rather live with on a desert isle than a bible, as I have so often boasted cleverly, lay open after I’d written the draft of a bad, sick poem.” She went on to describe herself as “Roget’s strumpet.”

Dylan Thomas also couldn’t have written some of his most cherished poems without the thesaurus. As Kendall puts it, “To revise his early drafts of the poem, to tweak an image or sound pattern he was developing, Thomas rifled through Roget’s.”

Martin Amis is another devotee, for similar stylistic reasons. People assume thesauruses are there “so you can look up a fancy word for big,” he once said, when in fact they serve their true purpose when “you’re unhappy with the word you’ve chosen not because of its meaning, but because of its rhythm. You may want a monosyllable for this concept, or you may want a trisyllable.”

The success of Roget’s led to thesauruses in several other languages. Arvind Kumar’s Samantar Kosh, which took 20 years of labour, is one example. “The idea was to dig deep,” he said in an interview. “Take a western invention like the ‘spinning jenny’. A literal translation into Hindi would be ridiculous because the name was coined by the inventor and is specific to the language. But, if you go to the Bombay mills and ask the workers, they have their own name for the machine: putli.” Similarly, Kumar found 125 words for turmeric, and 32 for a helmet.

However, there are many who deride the use of a thesaurus. A notable attack was by Simon Winchester, author of a bestseller on the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, among others. The thesaurus “should be roundly condemned as a crucial part of the engine work that has transported us to our current state of linguistic and intellectual mediocrity,” he writes indignantly.

Winchester’s argument is that Roget assumed users of his work would have a grounding in grammar and syntax, as well as an appreciation of proper word selection. That’s why his thesaurus didn’t include definitions. Because of this assumption, feels Winchester, the thesaurus has fostered poor writing over the years.

“It offered facile answers to complex linguistic questions,” he goes on. “It appealed to a growing desire for snap solutions to tricky verbal situations. It enabled students to appear learned without ever helping to make them so. It encouraged a malaprop society. It made for literary window dressing. It was meretricious.”

There’s certainly something to Winchester’s harangue, which is evident in so much writing that tries to employ elegant variation or otherwise sound erudite. Winchester’s own example is that of a student who used the thesaurus to improve the phrase “earthly fingers”, and came up with “chthonic digits.”

Nevertheless, the genie is out of the bottle. Roget’s work, and that of those who followed in his footsteps, has sold millions of copies, and its spirit lives on in word processing documents, writing software, online sites, and rude memes involving Shashi Tharoor. You could say he’s become pervasive, omnipresent, ubiquitous and universal.

 
Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Feb 27, 2021 09:33 am

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