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Thesaurus Day – In Honor of Dr. Peter M. Roget‏

By James L. (JimiJam)


As reference books go, there are few, save perhaps the dictionary, that rival the utility of the thesaurus. It seems unlikely that anyone charged with even the briefest of essays has surmounted the task without the aid of this handy volume. In many ways, the thesaurus of today is little changed from that of the past. In others, however, the two may bear only a passing resemblance. Though many are familiar with any number of editions listing synonyms and antonyms aplenty, few may realize that there was once a time in which the word “thesaurus” applied to far more than literary compendia. In the 16th century, the word thesaurus–borrowed from the Greek thesauros, meaning “treasure store”–applied to any collection of valuable information. It wasn’t until the 19th century, and the now famous work of Dr. Peter Mark Roget, that the word took on the meaning still carried to this day.

Born on January 18th, 1779, in the West End of London, Peter Roget developed a proclivity for list-making by the age of 8. He later attributed this talent to his perceived deficiencies; a sufferer of chronic fits of depression, the lists were meant to aid him in overcoming shortcomings that resulted from this ailment. Though he had first begun his now-famous work in 1805, it wasn’t until 1852 that the first printed edition was released. This work, which was at the time titled Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition, featured a structure very different from that of its modern descendants. Whereas the present day thesaurus is compiled in a dictionary format, the original work featured a method of categorization centuries old, and very similar to the system used by Aristotle. To this day, owing much to Roget’s original format, organizations such as Wikipedia still use this system of categorization.

       (Table of contents to the 1911 edition of Roget's Thesaurus) 

While we are all familiar with this hallmark of the classroom and study, Roget’s contributions to the world were many. Although these were clearly overshadowed by the reference book that bears his name, there is one in particular which also lives on, although in a drastically different form. As the story goes, it all began with a look through the blinds of his kitchen window. Roget was fascinated by the fact that, as carts passed along the lane outside, he could still perceive the uninterrupted image of their movement despite the vertical blinds hanging before the window. Attributing this phenomenon to retinal memory, in 1825 he penned a paper entitled “”Explanation of optical deception in the appearance of the spokes of a wheel seen through vertical apertures”. Lurking behind this verbose and technical title was the realization that a series of images, presented quickly enough, could give the illusion of consistent movement. This discovery led to the invention of the zoetrope in 1833, a slotted carousel with illustrations opposite each opening, which when spun created the first world’s first animations, and provided an essential step on the path to what would eventually become the science behind motion pictures. So, the next time you find yourself enjoying a movie, take a moment to recall Peter Roget, staring out his kitchen window.


The thesaurus, originally meant to illustrate the various shades and colors a given concept might contain, affords us opportunities to color our own worlds more brightly than we might. Why walk, for example, when we can perambulate, mosey, saunter or stroll? Do we merely talk, or do we converse, discuss, regale, and rhapsodize? Life is without question multifaceted, and to relate thoroughly what we see in it requires a language equal to the task. With Roget’s help, life, not fit to be merely beautiful, can be resplendent, alluring, radiant, exquisite, pulchritudinous, beauteous, lovely, and fair. On this, the 232nd anniversary of the birth of Dr. Peter M. Roget, look to the world for as many colors as you can find, and remember where you can turn for words apt to its description.




(There are many different ISBNs in the PBS data base for Roget’s Thesaurus. Here are just a few examples)

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6 Responses to “Thesaurus Day – In Honor of Dr. Peter M. Roget‏”

  1. Jerelyn H. (I-F-Letty) says:

    Another great article Jimi!

  2. Leslie P. says:

    This was really interesting! Thanks…

  3. Lori B. says:

    An interesting book about Roget is The Man Who Made Lists by Joshua Kendall. He also invented the slide rule. Great topic, James.

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