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peter mark roget

Happy Birthday, Peter Mark Roget, Compiler of Roget’s Thesaurus

January 18, 2010
by Shannon Firth
Peter Mark Roget had far-ranging passions and hobbies. He was a philologist, a doctor, a teacher, an inventor and a chess aficionado. Roget improved on the kaleidoscope and made important contributions to the science of cinema. He helped found the University of London and the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge, but arguably his most memorable contribution is his thesaurus.

Early Days

Peter Mark Roget was born in London on January 18, 1779. His father, Rev. Jean Roget, died when Roget was four years old, and his mother Catherine moved the family several times before settling in Edinburgh.

He entered the University of Edinburgh at the age of 14 and earned his medical degree five years later. A Time magazine profile describes Roget as “a slim, sociable gentleman, whose feverish energy left his London friends panting.”

Notable Accomplishments

Indeed, Roget kept busy over the years. He worked as a private physician and a tutor. He wrote numerous entries for various encyclopedias. He invented a pocket chessboard and a new type of slide rule. He served 21 years as secretary for the Royal Society, Britain’s national academy of science. The government asked him to explore London’s water system.  He sought to improve sanitation and food preservation, even discussing the concept of a “frigidarium.” He helped to found Manchester Medical School and the University of London.

On November 18, 1824, he married Mary Taylor Hobson; two weeks after their wedding, she fumed over his cold breakfast while he stood entranced by the sight of a cart’s wheels, viewed through the blinds in his kitchen window. In a paper he sent to the Royal Society, Roget explained his observation: “An impression made by a pencil of rays on the retina, if sufficiently vivid, will remain for a certain time after the cause has ceased.” The insight that a series of images presented in rapid succession would create the illusion of motion eventually led to the development of cinema.
Of course, Roget’s best-known accomplishment was the thesaurus that bears his name. He began keeping lists of words as a young man, but didn’t publish the thesaurus until he was 73. His collection of synonyms and antonyms was not the first such volume to appear, but his was far better organized than others’ previous efforts. His classification system functions as the reverse of a dictionary: a reader starts with the meaning and finds the word.

The Karpeles Manuscript Library’s Web site offers an image of a page from Roget’s original manuscript and an excerpt of his preface.

Download Roget’s Thesaurus for free on the Project Gutenberg Web site.

The Rest of the Story

Twenty-eight editions of the thesaurus were published during Roget’s lifetime. He died on September 12, 1869. His son, and then his grandson, went on to edit later editions of the thesaurus; it was later sold to a publisher. The first edition of the thesaurus had a print run of 1,000. According to the Independent, more than 32 million copies of the thesaurus had been sold by 2002. A Slate article suggests that the Web may soon make the print version of the thesaurus obsolete, but some lexicographers still use principles from Roget’s system of classification in their databases today.

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