The irony is that the current raison d’être of Roget’s Thesaurus — as the source of term-paper wordage for panicked college students (and some journalists), or all-knowing oracle for frustrated crosswordists — is the antithesis (opposite, antipodean) of what Peter Roget intended when he published the book’s first edition in 1852.
According to Boston-based writer Joshua Kendall’s new biography, The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus (Putnam, 304 pages, $25.95), Roget felt his life’s mission was to “bring order to the world,” via “clear communication.” He believed the world’s salvation depended on a communal abstinence from using the same insipid (drab, bromidic) words all the time, and that’s probably still a noble mission in an age where “kthxbye” is perfectly acceptable in everyday conversation. But Roget wanted thesaurus users to consider language choice and concept carefully, rather than use the guide as the verbal equivalent of a fast-food drive-thru for people who want to sound more intellectual (sage, academic).
Roget’s family tree was rooted in tragedy. His uncle, British legal reformer Samuel Romilly, died gruesomely (horribly, dreadfully) in Roget’s arms after slashing (cutting, slitting) his own throat in a state of grief (anguish, dolor) over his wife’s demise (passing, expiration). His mother was inescapably needy and mentally unstable, as were his sister and daughter. From age eight, making lists of words separated into categories became a means of escape (avoidance, evasion) for Roget — his attempt to eschew madness (derangement, lunacy) for extreme order (harmony, balance).
“He showed signs of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder,” says Kendall, over the phone from his Beacon Hill home, where he’s working on his next book, a biography of Noah Webster. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder is an inflexible conformity to orderliness, which is commonly confused with obsessive-compulsive disorder, though the two are distinctly different.
“When it comes to lexicography, you sort of have to have that type of mentality,” says Kendall, noting that dictionary-editor Webster was similarly afflicted.
Now that it’s transitioned from a collection of 1000 concepts to a seemingly limitless online database, Roget’s Thesaurus, his magnum opus (jewel, masterwork), would be a marvelous sight for pre-Internet writers, despite what critics may say. The poet Sylvia Plath once wrote, lovingly (affectionately, tenderly, ungrammatically): “I would rather live with [it] on a desert isle than a bible.”
Joshua Kendall will read at Jabberwocky Bookshop, 50 Water Street, Newburyport, on March 21, at 7 pm, and at Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard Street, Brookline, on March 24, at 7 pm.