Story of a work synonymous with synonyms

A History of Roget's Thesaurus
October 8, 2004

A History of Roget's Thesaurus is not exactly a history of Roget's Thesaurus , or at least not the kind that readers might expect if their template is something such as K. M. E. Murray's Caught in the Web of Words or Simon Winchester's The Meaning of Everything , both accounts of the making of The Oxford English Dictionary .

It is impossible to write anything comparable about Roget's Thesaurus because the necessary source material does not exist. The Thesaurus was a project to which Peter Mark Roget turned in earnest only after his retirement in 1848, a period of his life from which no correspondence, notes or other personal reflections survive. Werner Hüllen explains: "We do not know anything about these years - how he collected the word lists, what his sources were, how he drew up the classifications, etc.

Apart from the preface to the first edition, we have no sources which tell us anything about Roget's thoughts on this topic."

We can, however, infer something from what we know about the rest of Roget's intellectual and professional life. He was born in London in 1779 and became a prominent, if ultimately minor, figure in the scientific life of Britain in the first half of the 19th century. As well as practising medicine, he devoted time to lecturing and writing on science, to public health schemes and to committee work for various learned societies. Though not an original thinker, he was an able synthesiser of knowledge, guided always by his deep commitment to the orderly classification of natural phenomena. That commitment had a spiritual dimension: his best-known work other than the Thesaurus , on animal and vegetable physiology, appeared in 1834 as part of the Bridgwater Treatises , texts devoted to the explication of nature as an expression of God's design for the universe. When he turned his attention to language, the result embodied the same concern with order, system, classification and design.

Another thread running through all Roget's work is his strong belief in utility. Just as Roget the physician and scientist applied himself to practical issues such as sewage disposal, so his Thesaurus was not an exercise in theory or philosophy, but a work intended to help ordinary language users with the practical business of expressing their thoughts in words.

Hüllen's first main chapter deals with Roget's life, and the final chapter analyses the Thesaurus itself. For most of the book, however, Roget lurks in the background while Hüllen undertakes a thorough historical examination of the two lexicographical traditions on which his Thesaurus drew: the compilation of synonyms and the organisation of word lists by topic. These can be thought of as opposite (or complementary) approaches: whereas the synonym dictionary begins from word-forms and provides the user with semantic equivalents, the onomasiological (topic-based) dictionary starts from meanings or concepts and provides the user with a series of word forms that express them. Roget's original (though possibly unintentional) contribution was to combine the two approaches in a single work. His Thesaurus functioned as a synonym dictionary but also followed the onomasiological principle whereby the selection and ordering of the concepts is intended to be meaningful and instructive, embodying some logical classification of phenomena rather than simply arranging entries in alphabetical order.

For each of the two traditions he considers, Hüllen works through a chronologically ordered list of exemplars whose main features he presents in detail. The treatment of synonymy begins in classical antiquity, passes through the early phase of English dictionary-making and then focuses on the emergence of the synonym dictionary proper in 18th-century France. The (much briefer) treatment of onomasiology glances at the medieval glossary tradition but concentrates on the contributions of Enlightenment thinkers such as John Wilkins, designers of "universal languages" in which characters stood for ideas, and of the encyclopedists whose contemporaneous project was to catalogue all human knowledge.

It is unclear how much of this literature Roget knew (his preface cites Wilkins, Maimieux and a small number of English synonym dictionaries); he seems not to have been connected to the European scholarly circles in which the same questions continued to be discussed in his own time. As Hüllen comments, however, the issue of sources is not very significant in Roget's case. His Thesaurus was designed for practical utility rather than the advancement of theoretical knowledge, and he made use of ideas that were very much "in the air" for educated people of his milieu.

Hüllen is to be commended for tracing the evolution of those ideas and so placing Roget's Thesaurus in a longer historical context. This is not, however, a project likely to capture the imagination of non-specialist readers, particularly as the writing tends at times to be dense and dry.

The book will interest mainly historians of lexicography and linguistic thought, who will undoubtedly find it informative and useful.

Deborah Cameron is professor of language and communication, Oxford University.

A History of Roget's Thesaurus: Origins, Development and Design

Author - Werner Hüllen
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 410
Price - £79.00
ISBN - 0 19 925472 9

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