THE MAN AND
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Can words replace Prozac? Well, maybe. At least, words were the treatment of choice for Scientist-Physician-Wordsmith Peter Mark Roget, creator of ROGET’S THESAURUS. Born into a family cursed by emotional illness, suffering from an obsessive-compulsive disorder, Roget began making lists when he was only eight years old—long before he grew into the man who harnessed his fetish for order with words and most of all, their categories and relationships.
Joshua Kendall, Roget’s biographer, notes, “As a boy, he stumbled upon a remarkable discovery—that compiling lists of words could provide solace, no matter what misfortunes might befall him. As an adult, he kept returning to the classifications of words and concepts. Immersion in the nuances of language could invariably energize him and keep his persistent anxiety at bay.”
Obsessed with his desire to impose order upon a chaotic world, trying to classify the strange relationships between language and life, focusing on words “that always constituted a means to an end…disseminating scientific knowledge that ultimately had some useful purpose,” Roget studied medicine and became a successful London
But sorrow dogged him. Married at 46 to Mary Hobson, beautiful, smart, rich, and 16 years younger than he, Roget was crushed by her death from breast cancer nine years later when she was only 38. Still, words supported him. Fifteen years after Mary’s death, he published the BRIDGEWATER TREATISE “the culmination of his lifelong pursuit, begun in his childhood notebook, to organize the animate world.”
Science and medicine provided insufficient comfort. Even a mistress, whom he preferred to his depressive daughter Kate, was not enough. Finally, retiring in 1848, Roget gave new meaning to the word, “retirement.” In 1852, Roget published the first edition of his THESAURUS. Until his death at 90, Roget continued to work on his “treasure” (the English definition of the Latin “thesaurus”), modifying, improving, tweaking as he went along.
Roget’s was not the first treatise on “synonymy” and language. Bishop John Wilkins’ 1668 Essay towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language and Hester Lynch Piozzi (Samuel Johnson’s friend)’s 1794 British Synonymy preceded the Thesaurus. But classifying, organizing, categorizing words and their relationship to each other and to experience made Roget’s a first in its own right.
For reasons unknown but guessed at, lists (there’s that word again) of the many doctors who also became writers rarely include Peter Mark Roget’s name. Yet it was his scientific training that helped him harness his penchant for organizing words into the treasure that writers still depend on today.
A glance into Microsoft’s so-called “thesaurus,” a look at the insufferability of the email clogging our computers, makes us realize how today’s world is giving short shrift to Roget’s undertaking.
Words alone do not a communicator make. Roget’s self-enclosed life proved that. But words with thought can enrich our lives and make us look beneath the surface. We owe Roget a debt. For who could ask for anything more?