Jewish World Review Nov. 16, 1999 /7 Kislev, 5760
The man who didn't
know the meaning of
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
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
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
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
JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.
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