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Are there any other thesaurus lovers out there?

I have been using thesauruses (thesauri is the preferred plural of the author but thesauruses is definitely more fun to say!) for many, many years.  When I’m writing something, I want to use the perfect word to get my meaning across. Or sometimes I just need to not use the exact same word 5 times in a row and will use the thesaurus to find a suitable replacement.

The Right Word, a children's biography of Peter Roget, tells us how the Thesaurus we all know and love came to be.
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What better place to photograph the life story of Peter Roget than in the library, surrounded by books, and next to the latest version of his creation, Roget’s II?

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus

On one of my recent forays into the children’s section of the library I came across the book, The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus, by Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet.  I had never really thought about the fact that Roget was an actual person or how the thesaurus came to be.  I just took that awesome book for granted.  I’m so ashamed…

I loved this book from the start!  The illustrations incorporate various lists of words and serve as the perfect background to the biographical story of Peter Roget.  He faced losses in his early life and found solace in finding the right word to perfectly capture his thoughts and feelings.

The pages of The Right Word are illustrated with lists and artistic typography which add to the atmosphere of Peter Roget's life story and creation of his Thesaurus.
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I absolutely adore how perfectly the book has been illustrated. The lists and artistic typography add so much atmosphere to the story of Peter’s life.

The Right Word is a children’s book so it keeps things simple and basic.  Peter Roget’s story runs deeper though.  A few weeks after reading The Right Word I was listening to the latest episode of The Way I Heard It podcast.  Episode 133 is titled “Call It What You Will”.  I usually have no idea what the twist is in these podcasts but this time I knew right away that he was talking about Peter Roget.  One of the best parts of Mike Rowe’s podcast is how he uses such a varied vocabulary in his stories.  And this time, in the episode about the creator of the thesaurus? So many perfect words and synonyms!  You should definitely go listen to this one.


The Man Who Made Lists

The end of The Right Word has a timeline of Roget’s life and gives a little more insight into the extent of his troubled childhood.  To find out more, I checked out The Man Who Made Lists from the library.  This adult biography of Peter Roget is much more extensive and tells us so much about how he lived and the mental health struggles of his family throughout his life.

The Man Who Made Lists biography of Peter Roget, creator of Roget's Thesaurus
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The grown-up version of the story. More information but without the great pictures!

List of Principle Events

(or… a brief timeline of Roget’s life)

January 18, 1779 – Peter Roget is born

1793 – Roget’s father dies when Peter is only 4 years old

1787 – Peter begins his first book of words when he is 8 years old – Peter, Mark, Roget, His Book

1793 – Peter, at age 14, enters medical school

1798 – Graduates from medical school

1804 – Begins first job as a physician

1818 – Uncle Samuel Romily dies

1824 – Marries Mary Taylor Hobson

1825 – Daughter Catherine is born

1828 – Son John Lewis is born

1833 – Wife dies after several years of illness

1835 – Mother dies

1852 – First edition of the Thesaurus is published

1869 – Roget dies on September 12.

Peter Roget Was a Polymath!

Okay, first of all, I had no idea that this word meant what it means.  Did you know that a polymath is a person of great learning in several fields of study? Apparently, in addition to creating a thesaurus for the ages, Peter Roget was also a first-rate scientist and lecturer.

Though he went to medical school and worked as a doctor for several years, after the death of his uncle, Roget left clinical medicine and began to lecture.  Additionally, he was a science writer for the masses.  In the 1820s and 1830s, he published three hundred thousand words in Encyclopedia Britannica and wrote several lengthy review articles for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

Roget’s research led to several advances in many fields. 

For example:

  • led to the invention of motion picture camera
  • invented the slide rule
  • improved the aquifers of London to provide purified drinking water to the city
  • development of general anesthesia
  • wrote many articles for Encyclopedia Britannica

The Psychology Behind Roget’s Accomplishments

Why was Peter Roget so prolific in his studies and writing?  Why did he focus on such a wide variety of subjects?

As mentioned above, Roget (and his family) struggled with mental illness.  One of Peter’s first coping mechanisms was his book of lists that he started at age 8.  Then, as an adult, Peter wrote hundreds of scholarly papers on a variety of natural phenomena. His detailed observations and analyses came from his attempts to control and to make sense of the world. They were his way of explaining the chaos of an unpredictable world.

According to Freud, obsessions tend to first appear between the ages of 6-8. These obsessions can help people ward off intense and painful emotions such as anxiety.  Current day psychologists agree that most obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions are an effort to undo or counteract impulses towards destructiveness, greed, and messiness.  They offer control.  Obsessive-compulsive people are particularly suited to the field of lexicography and the necessary attention to detail in that field.

At the age of 8, Peter Roget discovered an all-encompassing intellectual pursuit: classifying the world. Burying himself in words was the only survival strategy available to him. This obsession would preoccupy him for the rest of his life and would save him from sinking into the madness that swallowed many of his family members.  Roget’s book of lists allowed him to live life in the face of overwhelming loss, anxiety, and despair.  His intellectual labors functioned as insulation and protection from his turbulent emotions while providing a creative outlet for his feelings.  He would go on to dedicate his life to disseminating abstract knowledge in a clear and useful way.  Peter’s book of words helped him as a child and it has continued to help millions of users since.

Let’s Look Inside The Right Word

The inside back cover, or endpaper, of The Right Word is an illustrated excerpt of Roget's Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged
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The inside back cover of The Right Word is a delightfully illustrated excerpt from Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classfied and Arranged, etc. I’m very glad we have adapted the title of his work to be the much simpler “Thesaurus”.

Enjoy a book trailer for The Right Word

See Melissa Sweet’s Illustration Process for The Right Word

Melissa was able to visit a collector’s collection and hold Peter Roget’s original book of lists in her hands! Wow! From there she spent hours looking through the first edition of the thesaurus for inspiration. Go to this website to see her sketches evolve into final illustrations.

Visit the Author’s Website

See more about The Right Word at author Jen Bryant‘s website.

Read the books yourself…

The Thesaurus

Despite his seemingly endless scientific writings, Peter Roget is most remembered for his Thesaurus which has sold over 40 million copies.  Mike Rowe describes Roget’s thesaurus as an:

“indispensable directory of dialectical determination… unparalleled linguistic lineup of syntactical substitutes, a most crucial compendium of etymological options, a singular source of all things synonymous.”

Mike Rowe, The way i heard it podcast

(See what I mean about his fabulous word use?  Go listen to his whole episode about Roget! It’s only 10 minutes long. You won’t regret it!)

So how did 8-year-old Peter’s book of lists become the Thesaurus that we know and love?

It’s 1849. Peter Roget is 70 years old.  He has led a remarkable life full of education and service.  He has published several articles and books but the Thesaurus has yet to come out into the world.  The lists of words still live in his private notebook but Peter feels compelled to share his lists of words.  He will make one final effort to restore order to the world.

As he worked, he studied all the previously published synonym books.  Rather than explain words or prescribe how the words should be used, as other synonym books of the day did, Peter felt that just listing the options was enough.  His lists were divided by a classification system that kept similar words together. Thankfully, at the last minute, he added an alphabetical index to the back of the book. (I am definitely a fan of the alphabetical arrangement – much easier to use!)

Peter Roget believed that there is no such thing as a synonym because no two words can mean the exact same thing.

Roget’s immortal thesaurus was the culmination of his lifelong desire to bring order to the world, as it involved classifying everything.  He felt strongly about teaching the English how to speak and use words properly.  Roget’s intended audience was the common man.  He hoped that if people could learn to use language and words better, they might be able to right what is wrong in the world.

Roget assumed the reader would play an active role in selecting the right word.  In the introduction he wrote, “My object…is not to regulate the use of words, but simply to supply and suggest such as may be wanted on occasion, leaving the proper selection entirely up to the discretion and taste of the employer.”  As such,  his thesaurus was intended to be an interactive tool whose usefulness ultimately depends on how much effort the user puts into finding just the right word.  Any writer who simply exchanges a word of their own with a carelessly chosen word from the same category in the thesaurus is doing it all wrong and looks the fool in the process.  To me at least (and to teachers everywhere!), it’s usually obvious when someone has been haphazardly substituting words from the thesaurus in an attempt to “improve” an essay or other writing.

For the people

All of Peter Roget’s scholarly publications, including the thesaurus, were intended to disseminate scientific knowledge with useful purpose.

There is no such thing as a synonym because no two words can mean exactly the same thing.

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The Right Word is a children's biography of Peter Roget. It tells of his struggles with mental illness and how he was able to use his book of words and lists to keep despair at bay. His Thesaurus and many scientific writings continue to serve the world today.
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The Right Word is a children’s biography of Peter Roget. It tells of his struggles with mental illness and how he was able to use his book of words and lists to keep despair at bay. His Thesaurus and many scientific writings continue to serve the world today.

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