The Man Who Made Lists

Apart from Webster, few people have had more impact on English syntax than Peter Roget. At this very moment, tattered copies of Roget’s International Thesaurus are sitting on the desks of thousands of writers, but how many know the story of the man behind the words? In his biography of Roget, Joshua Kendall shows how the indispensible reference book — which first rolled off British presses in 1852 — sprang from the mind of an obsessive-compulsive. Modern psychoanalysts would have a field day with Roget’s upbringing by a domineering mother and his family history of insanity and suicide. Kendall’s biography opens with a dramatic, and very bloody, scene: Roget’s uncle commits suicide by slitting his throat, then dies in the arms of Roget, a successful doctor at the time. The account of Roget’s life that follows never quite achieves that level of intensity — though Kendall tries to hold our interest with scenes where he appears to have invented dialogue (or patched it haphazardly from diverse extant sources), with artificial, stilted results. Some of the difficulty might lie with Roget himself, who led a repressed, controlled life. In addition to synonyms and antonyms, his other lists charted his personal life through “Dates of Deaths” and “List of Principal Events.” The lifelong annotations provided an emotional haven for the shy, awkward man. “He became a daydreamer who easily got lost in the contents of his own mind,” Kendall writes. Creating the thesaurus was “both a moral calling and a welcome distraction from his turbulent inner world.” More than a wordsmith, Roget also invented a user-friendly slide rule, had breakthrough discoveries in the science of optics (which Kendall links to the invention of motion pictures), and participated in early experiments with laughing gas. However, his legacy remains the thesaurus, and that impact continues right up to this moment, when someone, somewhere is searching for just the right word. –