When you are searching for a word that is more precise than another though similar in meaning, you don’t browse Piozzi’s. Yet British Synonymy, the first English book of synonyms, was written by Hester Lynch Piozzi. Nor do you grab your Girard’s. Published 76 years before Piozzi, the 1718 book of French words appears to be the first collection of synonyms in any language. What you reach for is your Roget’s. Originally published in 1852, having been compiled over the course of more than four decades by the eponymous but strangely anonymous Peter Mark Roget, the thesaurus we know and love was not the first of its kind. Roget’s was the sixth or seventh in a line of, well, synonymous—but not identical—compendiums. Now, after a century-and-a-half career as a publishing juggernaut, the bound and beloved version is becoming a historical relic in the computer era.
So begins Christine Kenneally as she reviews Joshua Kendall’s The Man Who Made Lists for Slate Magazine.
Now I’m a word person. I love word play, reading about language, and reading about people like Roget. But I have to confess that the slow death of Roget’s does not trouble me. While I give every student their own copy of Webster’s dictionary (also on its way out, I suspect), the two copies of Roget’s I have are in an obscure corner of a classroom bookshelf. I never mention them, only letting kids know where they are if they ask explicitly for a thesaurus.
You see, I find that kids tend to misuse words gotten from a thesaurus. I’d much rather they use other sources to find other words, interesting words, whatever you want to call them when they write. Right now (today, as a matter of fact), they will be starting to plan a work of historical fiction about the Pilgrims (after several weeks of background preparation). They will have many sources for words — glossaries from all over the place. We’ve already been talking about how to make a work of historical fiction sounds authentic — how the best writers know just how to use old words to do this. I’d rather they reuse words that work well rather than search frantically for words that don’t. And in my experience, the latter is exactly what they do with Roget’s.
And I suspect it is what some teachers grab when telling kids to use words other than “said.” They argue that it is dull and bland when overused. I disagree and think it is a perfectly good word. In fact, in my experience, when students are advised to use synonyms for “said” their work becomes overly self-conscious, and again awkward. I much prefer “said” than the not-quite-right words they use instead. If you want to expand student vocabulary — have them read, read, read! And use those words all the time. Because we are about to start that work of Pilgrim historical fiction I’m addressing my students as “thou,” using “divers” instead of “variety”, “’tis” and other words we’ve encountered in our reading to date. Words that were indeed in use in 1620. Much more fun and sticking better, I think, than heading to a word book creating hundreds of years later.
And so, fascinating and useful as it may have been for many, I cannot morn Roget’s passing.