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Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 1999 /7 Kislev, 5760

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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The man who didn't know the meaning of 'whatever' -- May we now please pause for a moment--and I've been meaning to do this for years--to honor and contemplate one of the most unsung and gloriously idiosyncratic men who ever lived: Dr. Peter Mark Roget.

His last name, you know--he's the Roget of "Roget's Thesaurus." But the person himself--Dr. Roget--has somehow managed to escape celebration as the years of history pass by. And when you think about what this guy decided to do . . . .

Well, I think about it every time I'm in the last stages of writing a book, as I am now. I'm quite certain that a lot of people who write books go through the same thing: The research is completed, the majority of the writing is finished . . . and you're looking at about 400 pages of manuscript, and you begin to notice something. You've used "precise" on page 37 and "precisely" on page 53 and "precise" again on page 110 . . . or you've used "apparently" on page 11 and "apparent" on page 21 and "apparently" on page 84 . . . .

And it drives you nuts. So you give yourself another week, you shut yourself off somewhere with the phone off the hook, with all those pages on a table in front of you, and with "Roget's Thesaurus" by your side. Because in the age of "whatever" in which we all find ourselves living, Dr. Roget's legacy is that he was the ultimate anti-whatever guy. "Whatever" means that the small things don't matter; to Dr. Roget, nothing mattered more.

For years, as I've turned to him to find out that "refuge" can also mean "sanctuary" or "safehold" or "haven," to learn that "probity" can also mean "rectitude" or "uprightness" or "worthiness," I have fleetingly (or evanescently) given thought to the man who came up with the idea to do this: to devote his life to the principle that the written word should not be repeated too often, if at all possible (or conceivable). But I never got around to finding out.

This time, I have.

Peter Roget was born near London in 1779. His father died when he was young; his mother moved to Edinburgh, where he entered the university at the precocious age of 14. By 19 he had graduated from medical school, and had embarked on research projects. In 1805 he became a physician at the Manchester Infirmary, and went on to a distinguished career in medicine.

But he was restless; he helped found the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge, and in his spare time invented a "log-log" slide rule for calculating the roots and powers of numbers. In his 61st year on Earth--after he had retired from the practice of medicine--he began to put together the first edition of his "Thesaurus." It took him 12 years to complete it.

Why did he do it? By his own account, he first got the idea--to classify words, to organize them meticulously--when he was 26 years old, "conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies." He said that he found that early attempt, "scanty and imperfect as it was, of much use to me in literary composition." In retirement from medicine "(I found) myself possessed of more leisure, and (believed) that a repertory of which I had myself experienced the advantage might, when amplified, prove useful to others." Of his "Thesaurus," Roget said: "I am fully aware of its numerous deficiencies and imperfections, and of its falling far short of the degree of excellence that might be attained. . . . (I trust) to the indulgence of those for whose benefit it is intended, and to the candor of critics who, while they find it easy to detect faults, can at the same time duly appreciate difficulties."

He died in 1869; he most likely had no idea that, more than a century later, writers would still be leaning on him (and on the men and women who have updated the work bearing his name over the years) in their efforts to make their own work as free of lexical repetitions as possible, and as exact in the meanings of words as they can get it. Every writer--as he or she goes back and forth between the "Thesaurus" and the manuscript--at least occasionally wonders whether anyone will even notice: whether (especially in the "whatever" era) this final polishing really matters.

But someone must notice; someone must think that following Roget's example means something. In J.M. Barrie's original "Peter Pan," Barrie, describing the awful Captain Hook, says that Hook is not wholly without admirable qualities:

"He has a Thesaurus in his cabin."

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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