5 min read

Dr Roget or How I learnt to love his thesaurus

Dr Roget or How I learnt to love his thesaurus
Photo by Jaredd Craig / Unsplash

I'm a bibliophile. I love books.

If I could choose a way of dying, it'll be by a stack of books falling on me. Hopefully, one would skew open so that my last moments alive will be reading. I know the cat will wonder over and begin assessing the situation, determining if she can begin eating me. I know the way she looks at me when I sleep. She's decided she'll start with the checks, carefully peeling away the skin to reveal the tender strips of muscle. Softly at first, but then with more confidence, she'd tear at the meat, licking the exposed bone dry. She'd then devour the eyes, and onto the succulent brains.

The dogs would feebly attempt to dig me out, but their attempts will be futile. The cat would begin eating me the moment I ceased breathing.

In case of a fire, I've decided to grab the laptop, the dogs and Roget's Thesaurus. Fuck the cat. She can burn alive.

If I had time, I'd also grab Homer's The Odyssey. I had a university lecturer who argued it had such depth and complexity that he could spend the rest of his life just reading it and still discover new things. I've been meaning to give it another go. There'd be no better time than by the flames of my burning house to reacquaint myself with Homer's masterpiece.

However, if I didn't have time, it'll just be the thesaurus. That's the book I'd take to that desert island we all dream of.

The whole point of the hypothetical desert island question is to determine what type of person you are. If you didn't pick the thesaurus, then you picked wrong. At least by the time you finish reading this, you'll be able to make at least one correct decision.

I'll also point out, just as outlandishly, that Dr Peter Mark Roget should have received a Nobel prize. It awarded Dr Roger Sperry one for the same thing that Roget discovered, only Roget was one hundred years too early. But I'll get to that soon.

First, why the thesaurus? There is no library on the desert island, so you'll be rereading whatever book you brought. If it has a plot, you'll soon tire of the way Darcy acts, or how Harry waves a magic wand.

I have been scouring the thesaurus for over ten years, and I still don't tire of the magic.

The thesaurus doesn't have a plot, nor a protagonist. The antagonist is the dictionary. And the Nobel prize committee. But I'll get to them shortly.

Most people access the thesaurus in times of need. You either know there is a better synonym or hope there is a better word. The index will give you the word you know, pointing you toward your perfect match. If only Tinder worked with such effectiveness.

The thesaurus is a tightly wound ball that will take a dozen lifetimes to unravel. He condensed all the ideas of humanity into this one book, condensed into word associations, condensed into two parts: the plan of classification and the list. The index was an afterthought.

The original purpose for Peter Mark Roget was to 'facilitate the expression of ideas'. And this is where the genius of the book lies. It isn't a book of synonyms, which is the big misconception. It is a book of ideas.

It is a book of ideas because words are the embodiment of ideas. We articulate these ideas, either to ourselves or others, using words. We make the abstract with words.

Peter Mark Roget first published his Thesaurus in 1852. In the intervening one hundred and seventy years, it has sold over 30 million copies.

With each new iteration, one thing is clear. Roget's classification system has absorbed the massive expansion of the English language. Each year, new words find a place within a taxonomy that was devised in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Greek word for treasure house is thesaurus, and if read properly, that is exactly what Roget has created. Like any house, there are two ways in. The Classification System is the grand entrance, reserved for special guest and formal occasions. It has six columns framing everything.

The second door is the where most people enter. It is designed for quick visits. Interestingly, the Index was an afterthought and is almost longer than the main text. My everyday thesaurus (yes, I collect thesauri) is 426 pages, whereas the index is 398 pages long.

It is in the grand foyer where the magic happens. Let me show you around.

There’s a hierarchy to Roget's taxonomy. Three levels in total.

At the top level, there are six 'classes'. They develop from 'Abstract Relations' to 'Emotion, religion & morality'. It is a movement from really abstract concepts such as '1. Existence' and ending with '990. Temple', as if Roget's structure bookends the forest from the tree, namely how we worship whatever existence we believe in. Only my temple is the classification system.

Within each of the six classes, there are two further levels in the hierarchy to think about. These are 'sections' and 'heads'.

What I am going to argue here is that this taxonomy allowed Roget, by 1852, to discover that would make Dr Roger Sperry a Nobel Laurette in Physiology or Medicine one hundred and thirty years later "for his discoveries concerning the functional specialization of the cerebral hemispheres." Remember that claim: "discoveries concerning the functional specialization."

There are two things we need to understand before posthumously awarding Roget his Nobel (yes, I know dead people can't become laureates, but this is one of those cases where there should be an exception. If not, award it to me in Roget's place.)

The first is an examination of Roget's classification and the second is the work that won the Novel Prize in 1981.

Something intriguing appears when you examine the number of 'heads' per 'section'. All but one 'section' has multiple 'heads'. The one exception is 'Creative Thought'.

This is THE part of his classification where Roget deals with the ways the human mind thinks. Roget left no notes as to how he came up with his classification system. What we do have is the fully formed taxonomy.

And for the total of how we, as humans, think, he could only come up with two 'head' words.

These two parts of our mind are Supposition and Imagination.

Under supposition, there are words such as 'postulation', 'premise', and 'hypothesis'.

Under imagination, there are 'originality', 'fantasy', and 'inspiration'.

In the 1960s, Dr Roger Wolcott Sperry had conducted extensive experiments on the human brain. His speciality was experiments on 'split brain' patients.

Now, the accepted mode of thought on this during not only the 19th century, but the first half of the 20th, was that the left side of the brain was the dominant half because it housed our ability for speech. The right side was a mere adjunct—the less advanced, less evolved half.

Sperry postulated a revised view of the relative capabilities of the halves of the human brain: higher cognitive functioning happened in both, with each half of the brain specialised in a complementary fashion for different modes of thinking, both highly complex.

The left brain regulates information such as words, numbers and logic, while the right brain deals with images, colours and spatial orientation.

Sperry spent decades experimenting on the monkey and human brains to understand the role of the corpus callosum (that little bridge between the two halves of our brain). Roget probably spent as long classifying words to come up with the same conclusion.

Our brain has two distinct parts capable of thinking in two unique ways.

I think it is only fair that Dr Roget be given due credit for his insights into how the human brain works.

I'll need to make some space for the Nobel Prize that is no doubt en route. I'll need to clear some books out to make room.

I see the cat lick her lips in expectation.