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The Saurus

Following up on a comment by an enthusiastic and faithful blog reader (you know who you are, Shimshon) about this blog's recent posting on the history of the dictionary, I thought we could look together at the dictionary's cousin, whom we mentioned briefly in the last post: the thesaurus.

But first, the elephant (or the lizard) in the room – what's up with this "saurus" business? Can we relate the thesaurus to the brontosaurus, tyrannosaurus, stegosaurus and other magnificent sauruses who are, sadly, no longer with us? Were huge thesauri [see below] blundering around the Mesozoic jungles, roaring synonyms at their ignorant cousins? Well, first of all, research on dinosaur skeletons suggests that dinosaurs did not make lion-like or bear-like roaring noises as they are heard to do in movies. It would seem that they made closed-mouth vocalizations that produced whishing, growling or even cooing sounds. Was our thesaurus, then, whishing or cooing synonyms at his (or her) less intelligent lizard family members? And if so, is the book we have today a tiny mutation that somehow survived the asteroid impact that probably wiped out the other sauruses?

Alas, no. "Saurus" is a Latinized form of the Greek word for lizard. "Thesaurus" comes from another Greek word altogether, a word that means "treasure." (Too bad. The unappreciated, misunderstood, synonym-cooing lizard, surely a lizard ahead of its time, can only roam the jungles of our imaginations.) One clue to the different etymologies of the dinosaur names and the word thesaurus is their plural forms. Brontosauruses, tyrannosauruses; thesauri.

The word thesaurus was first borrowed from Latin by archeologists in the early 19th century to describe an ancient treasury such as that in a temple. The word was quickly adopted to mean a metaphorical treasury of words such as a dictionary or encyclopedia. Soon after that, the iconic Roget took the word for his project, and "thesaurus" has been inextricably bound to his name ever since.

Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) was a physician, inventor, lexicographer, chess expert, writer, mathematician and editor. He loved words, and loved studying the roots of words, especially those based in Latin. Like other historical figures of legendary accomplishment, such as Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens and Isaac Newton, Roget suffered from lifelong depression. His obsession with symmetry, list-making and classification may have helped him make order in his world and cope with his depression. He began as a young man to classify and make lists of words connected by meaning, and he completed an initial, unpublished version of the thesaurus in 1805, when he was 26. His masterwork, the many versions of which we now call Roget's Thesaurus, was first published in 1852. This first version contained 15,000 words (modern versions contain well over 400,000). Roget saw many more versions published before his death, and he continued to tinker with his thesaurus until his death at the age of 90. The full name of his work was Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so to Assist in Literary Composition. Though we have come to think of a thesaurus as a book of synonyms (and antonyms), Roget's book was so much more than this.

Inspired by the biological classification system of Carl Linnaeus a hundred years earlier, Roget generated six classes of knowledge: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections, and into these he divided 1,000 concepts. Initially he came up with 1002 concepts, but this disturbed his sense of symmetry and he collapsed the extra two into other categories. Roget intended his book to be a classification of all knowledge. In the 1852 edition words in each section were not arranged alphabetically; rather, they were arranged according to where they fit in his classification system. For instance, the concept "existence," found in the category "abstract relations," could lead a reader to related ideas like "being" or "reality." Roget's idea was that a writer, orator or philosopher could browse the book, flipping through and sparking connections. Only in a later version did Roget insert an alphabetical index at the end, making it easier for people to use the book to find specific synonyms – the way most of us use a thesaurus today – rather than delving into philosophical connections and underpinnings, as Roget originally intended.

Many modern thesauri are arranged alphabetically. There is only one comprehensive modern version that stays true to Roget's vision, and it is introduced thusly:

"The revolutionary achievement of Dr. Peter Mark Roget’s first edition in 1852 was the development of a brand-new principle: the arrangement of words and phrases according to their meanings. Dr. Roget’s system brings together in one place all the terms associated with a single thought or concept; it allows a wide-ranging survey of language within a book of relatively modest size, without the space-consuming repetitions that so severely limit the scope of thesauri arranged in a dictionary format with A-to-Z entries… [it is] a cutting-edge aid in stimulating thought, organizing ideas, and writing and speaking more clearly and effectively."

Others before Roget had written on synonymy – the concept of different words having similar meanings – with the goal of helping orators and writers improve and enliven their speech and writing, but Mark Roget's work was on a different level, literary, philosophical, epistemological and far transcending a list of synonyms. A truly remarkable achievement.

Till next time.

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