Friday, January 18, 2013

In The #Words of Peter Mark #Roget

Open Book Policy by: Alex Proimos

January 18

Thesaurus Day

Happy Thesaurus Day. Today we celebrate the birthday of Peter Mark Rogert, the inventor of the world's first thesaurus. The thesaurus is a very important tool for any author or student. Why? Because it is very easy for any writer to overuse a word. When a writer overuses a word it gradually loses the emotional value it holds for the reader. In order to ensure this does not happen, writers will often look up a word in the thesaurus and use it's synonym. But a writer has to be careful when choosing the right synonym to use in that each word contains an emotional value to it. A thesaurus will also contain the antonyms for the word the writer is looking for and it's definition. 

Writers before the 19th century did not have the luxury of looking up words in an thesaurus. They had to be masters of the English language, which often times took years of formalized education. A formal education could be costly. Yet there are some writers, such as Benjamin Franklin, who beautifully mastered the English language through reading books that their works continue to draw readers today. 

Mental Illness Takes Its Toll

Peter Mark Roget
US Public Domain
The man behind the book suffered much sadness starting in his childhood. Peter Mark Roget was born in London, England on January 18, 1779 to Rev. Jean Roget of Switzerland and his wife, Catherine. Reverend Jean Roget died from tuberculosis when Peter was four years old. 

Catherine Roget was a Romilly. The Romilly family were descended from a family of French Huguenots who had settled in London. There was a long family history of mental illness on her side. Catherine's mother suffered from lifelong depression and was a schizophrenic. After the death of her husband, Catherine became needy, neurotic and eventually psychotic. Catherine's brother, Samuel Romilly, who was a famous legal reformer slit his throat after his wife had died. Peter was there when it happened. He had been trying to keep the knife away from his uncle. Peter's sister also suffered from mental illness. She had several mental breakdowns and depression. 

Peter's coping mechanism for dealing with his chaotic life was to make lists. He started his habit at an early age. His lists would include deaths, interesting words, and events. Later in his life he would organise his experiences into a binary system such as something was either "beautiful" or  "not beautiful." Peter failed to pick up social cues. He would count the steps he took everyday and had a fetish about cleanliness. If he was alive today he would be diagnosed as having High Functioning Aspergers Syndrome.

An Obnoxious Over Achiever 

Peter was a very intelligent man. He entered University of Edinburgh at the age of 14 and five years later graduated with a medical degree. The young physician had poor social skills but was admired for his intelligence. He wrote papers on tuberculosis and on the effects of nitrous oxide.  Known as 'laughing gas', nitrous oxide was being used as an anaesthetic. He had a hard time finding work as a clinician due to his poor social skills but was highly sought after as a lecturer in anatomy and physiology.  He often times described as aloof, hard to get along with and so mellow he never displayed strong emotions. In fact, Peter not only has Aspergers Syndrome but suffered from Depression as well. 

Peter eventually found work in Bristol and in Manchester for a time as a tutor. He would travel with his students throughout Europe. He moved to London in 1808, where he continued to lecture on medical topics. When Peter wasn't writing or lecturing he was often inventing. One of his inventions that is used in colleges and universities worldwide is the sliding ruler. The sliding ruler calculates the roots and powers of numbers. 

Peter married Mary Taylor Hobson in 1824. On November 18, 1824, just two weeks after their wedding, Mary caught Peter staring at a carriage wheel through the window blinds. His food was getting cold and she fused at him over it. Peter later wrote of his observation in a paper to the Royal Society, “An impression made by a pencil of rays on the retina, if sufficiently vivid, will remain for a certain time after the cause has ceased.” Peter's observation that a series of images overlayed on top of one another to create the illusion of movement eventually led to the development of the cinema. Peter and Mary had two children. Their daughter also suffered from depression and mental breakdowns. Mary died of cancer in 1833. 

The Thesaurus
Peter retired from the medical field in 1840.  Peter had written the manuscript for his thesaurus in 1805 yet never revealed it to anyone. He had cherished his secret list of 15,000 words for forty-seven years. You can view Peter's original handwritten manuscript here

Peter decided to share his list with the rest of the world when he was seventy-three years old. His Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases was published April 29, 1852. Peter wrote the following preface for his great work. 

"It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the same form, as the Thesaurus now published. I had often during that long interval found this little collection, scanty and imperfect though it was, of much use to me in literary composition, and often contemplated its extension and improvement; but a sense of the magnitude of the task, amidst a multiple of other avocations, deterred me from the attempt. Since my retirement from the duties of Secretary to the Royal Society, however, finding myself possessed of more leisure, and believing that a repertory of which I had myself experienced the advantage might, when amplified, prove useful to others, I resolved to embark in an undertaking which, for the last three or four years, has given me incessant occupation . . . "

Twenty- eight more editions were published during Peter's lifetime, each adding more words to the long list. Peter died on September 12, 1869. His son and grandson continued on with Peter's work. Peter's list of words have continued to expand with each new edition. 

You can read more about this interesting man at 

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