When only the right word will do

Roget by Thomas Pettigrew 1842, print of portrait, Medical Portrait Gallery
‘Roget’ by Thomas Pettigrew 1842, print of portrait, Medical Portrait Gallery

Not a rare type of dinosaur, this wonderful list of vocabulary on a large scale, categorized by topics has earned an enduring reputation as a handy aid to composition. Nouns, verbs and adjectives are all widely represented, although not the dreaded adverb.

Roget’s Thesaurus was born out of need. As a young and busy doctor, who was much given to lecturing, Peter Mark Roget felt the need to improve his powers of expression.

A compulsive list-maker from the age of eight, Roget devised a ‘classed catalogue of words’ for his own use in 1805. However, it was not until he was in his seventies in 1852, that the first edition, called the ‘Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition’ was printed.

Roget’s life was marked by several depressing incidents. His father and his wife both died young; while his beloved maternal uncle committed suicide in his presence. Roget struggled with depression for most of his life. It is believed that his work on the thesaurus arose partly from an effort to battle it.

Roget's Thesaurus
My battered old friend

Roget’s Thesaurus has been reprinted and revised many times since its original publication. My copy, a school prize no less, was the ‘New Edition, Completely Modernized and Abridged by Robert A. Dutch, and was hot off the press when I received it at the end my first year of high school in 1975. Doesn’t that date me!

I do still use my Roget from time to time. Okay, I know that Microsoft Office has its own in-built Thesaurus which can be handy, but it’s not anyway near as rich in vocabulary as Roget. Nor can you hold it in your hands and browse from section to section, as one intriguing word either spotted or remembered, takes you on a magical mystery tour for another.

I have to approach him with a degree of respect though, as my poor old paperback copy is rather delicate now, with loose pages and whole sections coming adrift at the seams. I hope I’ve worn a little better over these past 40-odd years.

But I wouldn’t be without him, my reliable old friend, Roget.

Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases