Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, March 9, 2008


Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget's Thesaurus

By Joshua Kendall

Putnam. 297 pp. $25.95

You're likely to find a copy of Roget's Thesaurus or one of its innumerable derivatives in the reference library of anyone who writes English well and -- perhaps more revealing -- in the library of anyone who writes English badly. It is at once an immensely useful compilation of synonyms that enables writers to identify the exact words they need, and a crutch leaned upon by journalists, speechwriters, graduate students, academics and others who sometimes are more concerned with sounding learned than with actually being learned.

For precisely this second reason the thesaurus has been a source of controversy ever since Peter Mark Roget brought out his first edition of 1,000 copies in May 1852. Though Roget's motives in compiling the thesaurus were scholarly and, so Joshua Kendall argues in this biography, therapeutic, some critics were quick to point out, accurately, that a book such as this encourages laziness and glibness rather than diligence and precision. My father, an elegant prose stylist, regarded Roget's with scorn and tried to discourage his students, not to mention his children, from using it. As for myself, I find it an immensely useful tool for recalling words that have slipped from my totally fallible memory, but I like to think -- I certainly hope -- that I do not use it in the service of mere pretentiousness.

Roget himself seems to have been utterly devoid of pretense. Born in London in 1778 into a family of French Huguenots, he had a difficult and occasionally painful childhood, a pattern that continued well into adulthood. His father, Jean, was a minister who contracted tuberculosis when the boy was six months old. He moved to Geneva with his wife in search of a rest cure, leaving Peter with his grandfather and namesake, Peter Romilly, but died in 1783, leaving Catherine Roget with their 4-year-old son and a brand-new daughter. She was 28 and devastated by her loss. For the rest of her life she was subject to depression and other forms of mental distress, and, right up to her death in 1835, she was more burden than blessing to Peter; she "became excessively dependent on Peter -- so much so that she almost began living through him." As for him:

"Jean Roget's early death had . . . profound effects on his son. Though the young boy would keep his feelings to himself, loss, and the fear of loss, were to shape the way Peter saw the world. The adult Roget would reveal this lifelong struggle in a poignant list, 'Dates of Deaths,' which he appended to the front of his 'List of Principal Events,' a telegraphic rendering of the major milestones of his life. . . . Included are the names of about thirty people -- those family members and friends who meant the most to him. Its first two entries are 'Jean Roget, 1783' and 'Peter Romilly, 1784.' By the time he was five, Peter was forced to cope with the unexpected deaths of both his beloved father and his doting grandfather."

The compilation of lists may seem a strange way to manage life's vagaries, but "Roget managed to stave off madness," which ran in his family, by doing so: "As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery -- that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. He was particularly fond of cataloguing the objects, both animate and inanimate, in his environment. As an adult, he kept returning to the classification of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably both energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay."

Kendall asserts this less as an interpretation than as a given, but it is plausible. Roget was possessed by a "lifelong desire to bring order to the world," and "classifying the world [became] an obsession that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life." He had "an idiosyncratic definition of pleasure," which "had little to do with enjoyment, but everything to do with the intellectual challenge of learning about order." Early in his life it became obvious that he was brilliant, but it took him a long while to find a connection between his obsession with order and his need for a remunerative career.

As a boy he was deeply interested in science. In 1793 his mother took him to the University of Edinburgh, where he "did swimmingly in all his courses" but "had difficulty making friends," the latter no doubt attributable "to his extreme shyness and to what family members referred to as his 'melancholy temperament.' " He was "overly formal and stiff [and] lacked a sense of humor," all of which is to say that -- especially as a young man -- he was more comfortable with words than with people. Yet even with words, he had his limits:

"Peter would never show evidence of a literary sensibility. Those who love literature typically are fascinated with stories and storytelling. But that's not how Roget's mind worked. Lacking a vivid imagination, he was a practical person. Since boyhood, words always constituted the means to an end. All of his scholarly publications, including the Thesaurus, were directed toward disseminating scientific knowledge that ultimately had some useful purpose." He studied medicine, and in 1804 became a physician at the city infirmary in Manchester. This hospital, later known as the Manchester Royal Infirmary, included "a dispensary for outpatients, a ward for the treatment of fever patients, and a psychiatric facility -- then called a 'lunatic asylum.' " He stayed there for four years, lecturing, "working for the passage of new laws and regulations to improve the city's public health," and completing "the first draft of his immortal book of lists." By 1808 he "was ready to move to the big stage -- London," where the following year he set himself up in a handsome house in Bloomsbury. The Royal College of Physicians granted him a library and his uncle Samuel Romilly "helped to found the Northern Dispensary, a free clinic that served the indigent in several sections of London." Roget's London career was launched there. His rise was not exactly meteoric, but by 1827 "he had been elected as one of the two Secretaries of the Royal Society," and the next year "he had begun the first of two one-year terms as president of the Medical and Chirurgical Society."

He had also emerged to a significant extent from the cocoon in which he had sheltered himself from the world. Small and delicate but rather handsome, he "enjoyed going to parties and dances" and "could be entertaining and amusing." Women were drawn to him, but he put off marriage until 1824, when he met and soon married Mary Hobson, 16 years his junior, possessed of "beauty and brains plus considerable wealth -- a noteworthy attribute in an age where the husband automatically assumed control over his new wife's personal property." She was a loving and attentive wife, he a happy husband. They had a daughter, Kate, born in 1825, and a son, John, born three years later. Then, in 1832, Mary was diagnosed with cancer. In April 1833, as Roget put it in his autobiography, his "adored and angelic wife expired" at the age of 38.

Not surprisingly, Roget buried himself in his work. He immersed himself in the study of "natural theology," the linear ancestor of today's "intelligent design," and he published the Bridgewater Treatise, a 250,000-word scientific magnum opus that "was the culmination of his lifelong pursuit, begun in his childhood notebook, to organize the animate world." His contemporaries assumed it would be the crowning work of his career, but that was before the appearance of the Thesaurus in 1852, four years after his retirement. This book, Kendall concludes, "did much more for its creator than it has done for its hundreds of millions of users across the centuries: it enabled Roget to live a vibrant life in the face of overwhelming loss, anxiety, and despair."

As for Kendall's own book, it is well-written and persuasive but largely devoid of narrative tension. It ought to build toward the climactic event of Roget's life, the publication of the Thesaurus, but that arrives almost as an afterthought and is given only a few perfunctory pages. There's a brief epilogue summarizing the book's history since its author's death, including the briefest of bows to the electronic "thesaurus" that now has replaced it on millions of computers, but this too is perfunctory. The Man Who Made Lists is unlikely to be the last word on Peter Mark Roget. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is

© 2008 The Washington Post Company