465. Roget’s Thesaurus

March 24, 2015

It was in 1852 that Dr. Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) published his

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases,

classified and arranged so as to facilitate the Expression of Ideas

and assist in Literary Composition.

As I view it, that book gives us a portrait of his mind striving to map meanings onto words in English, a task he began early in life to support his own writing, and completed well after his retirement from medical practice in 1840.

In 1805 as a young writer, he first compiled for his own use “a system of verbal classification” that he later believed would be useful to all who take care in selecting words to suit their intended use in particular settings. Throughout his life, Roget kept his mind active in pursuit of a wide range of interests. The Thesaurus is but one of his many accomplishments—the one for which he is cited today, even if its author is only dimly remembered.

I am of two minds regarding Dr. Roget and his Thesaurus. I admire his identifying a thousand categories of meaning in his own mind, and then systematically sorting his personal vocabulary of words and phrases among those headings. As one who takes his own mind seriously, I identify with him in making that effort.

But, too, I feel almost claustrophobic in wending my way along the quaint and weedy pathways he treads among the meanings and feelings he discovered within himself so long ago. His era is not my era, his reverence for Latinate expressions not my reverence, his verbal style not my style.

I cringe at many of the word clusters he amassed from terms he believed to share a core sense of meaning. I find myself silently dusting off and editing his lists, which, fortunately, others have done overtly in updating his now antiquated original to suit the needs of changing times.

But even so, I feel pinched in reading through earlier editions of his Thesaurus as I try to get as close to the man as I can from my remote perspective in the twenty-first century. Mine is a labor of, if not love, then of fellowship with a kindred wayfarer on his then journey through a now forgotten inner life.

Some would claim “we are all one” and it should be no labor at all to enter the mind of another. Tich Nhat Hahn has declared “We are here to recover from the illusion of our separateness.” I have heard it said that “We can escape from the self-imposed prison of personal isolation by deconstructing through personal meditation the bonds imposed by the delusion of selfhood.”

But endless repetition of the mantra “We are all one” does not make it so. As a convinced separatist, I believe that each of us is born either with or to a unique genome, immune system, neural network, memory, lifelong accumulation of experience, dream life, and succession of daily engagements, which taken together confirm each of us as a unique and separate experiment for which he or she is wholly responsible for perfecting, much as Peter Mark Roget was born to the task of refining his system of verbal classification precisely for the lifetime he was granted.

If I meditate, I am struck by the cacophony of thoughts and feelings—the psychic Armageddon—that would result if our fundamental separation turned out to be delusionary, a mere construction and convention of the culture we live in.

In my view, the workings of evolution depend on us responding differentially to the forces acting upon us; we tailor ourselves to the niches we occupy for the sake of survival. If we all thought and acted as if we were of one mind, we would self-destruct in an instant.

Instead of solving our common problems, deconstructing our individual minds would bring about the end, not only of personhood, but all humankind. Only discrete selves can take responsibility for their actions, and join cooperatively with others who are doing the same as led by their respective—and demonstrably separate—points of view.

My discomfort at approaching Dr. Roget’s mental processes too closely is a faint shadow of what might happen if we knocked down the walls of separation between our individual minds. Imagine having access to others’ minds in such a way that we could witness their thoughts and feelings from the perspective of our unique life experience!

That thought doesn’t bear thinking. I value Roget’s Thesaurus as the compilation by another man of his semantic struggle to ensure that his words reflected his personal thinking, as he hoped the words of others would reflect theirs. He was out to provide each of us with a tool that would do just that in each case. I find his effort—if worn and musty in places—to be not only admirable but remarkable in creating a set of word clusters that provide partial access to the workings of his subjective mind while, at the same time, are broad enough to allow the rest of us to do somewhat the same.

 

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