Saturday, 4 May 2013

In search of the perfect Roget's... by David Thorpe

One of my favourite writing tools is a thesaurus and this month I decided that I would buy a new one.

My last one has served me well for exactly 30 years, but sadly it predates the IT revolution and doesn't even contain the word 'byte'!

This Longman edition was, when it came out, itself a substantial revision, and was hailed in reviews for being 'feminist' because of its inclusion of more politically correct language.

In trying to select a new edition I discovered that, in my naivete, I wasn't aware of the difference between a Roget's thesaurus and a common-or-garden type. I still haven't found the ideal new edition, and wonder if anyone can recommend one. Here's what's happened so far...

Looking at reviews, I decided to buy the £30 Oxford University Press thesaurus, conscientiously avoiding buying it on Amazon for £19.40 but instead choosing to patronise my local bookshop, because I really don't want to support a company that is taking over just about everything and refusing to pay tax in this country.

I thought if it cost that much money, it must be good. Yes, I really am that naive. Touching, isn't it?

My local bookshop was very pleased, but when my book arrived, two days later, I was not. In the end, I had to take it back. Thing is, it was a conventional thesaurus, and this is when it dawned on me the difference between one of these and a Roget's.

I realised that I vastly prefer the latter, in the form of my much-loved old edition, because it is based on a system of categorising human knowledge devised by Peter Mark Roget.

Roget was an amazing man, who also invented, amongst many other things, the log-log slide rule and was co-founder of the University of London. Apparently he was also, like his contemporary Wordsworth, an aficionado of psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and used it to treat his depression.

His other self-administered treatment was making lists, and his longest list ended up as the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition (which also might qualify for one of the longest book titles ever), whose first edition was published in 1852.

A Roget's is fantastic if you don't just want a synonym for word, which is more or less what a thesaurus provides, but also to access other words that exist in a similar or related category.

For example, you might find that 'threnody' is a synonym for 'elegy' in a conventional thesaurus, but in a Roget's you'd also get lists of other kinds of literary forms.

To use a Roget's thesaurus you look up a word in the back. This gives you several possible meanings for that word, if you like, the synonyms. Alongside these are numbers, which you then look up in the main body of the book.

Here, you will find a host of words and phrases which exist in the same knowledge category, linked to other entries for related categories.

This is where the £30 Oxford edition falls flat on its expensive dust jacket. For instance, I looked up 'dress'. In that entry there were just three synonyms for dress, none of which was 'skirt'.

When I looked up 'skirt', it provided only synonyms for the verb 'to skirt', and nothing corresponding to the noun. No mention of dresses!

There were many other examples, but take my word for it, this book is not worth the substantial amount of paper it's printed on. Its only distinguishing feature is a section in the middle which provides lists of words you might want to use if you want people to think you are smart. It is a magnificent example of 'dumbing down'.

Its design makes great use of white space, whereas my Longman Roget's, although in 11 point and perfectly readable, is dense with type, to provide space for as many words as possible.

Of course, there is a thesaurus on my computer, and there is always, but, like I say, these are just dictionaries of synonyms.

In effect, a Roget's is like an early version of hypertext. If Roget was around now, he would, I'm sure, be working in HTML5.

So I'm still looking for the perfect, up-to-date edition of Roget's thesaurus. There might be something wrong with me, but I do enjoy browsing through it for the hell of it, just to find trails of new words.

There are various more recent editions on the market from different publishers, but you can't tell by looking online how good they are, and I live over 100 miles from a bookshop sufficiently large to stock a variety to browse through.

Any suggestions gratefully received. Do you have a favourite edition? Or, indeed, any other favourite writing tools?


JO said...

I'm in the Roget camp - I've never found anything half as useful as that.

Penny Dolan said...

This is a wonderful post about the love of a particular book - and a sensitive comparison of the differences between Roget'a and Oxford versions.(The list of words to make you sound smart? Huh!)

I am not sure you'll ever be able to find a modern version to match your beloved Thesaurus, David, but I hope you do.

Ann Turnbull said...

I'm shocked to hear that the original Roget's Thesaurus is no longer in print. I was given my copy - a Penguin paperback - in 1958, and I would never part with it, even though it looks lightly toasted throughout and the spine is beginning to break. The only other damage is where I foolishly stuck a post-it on page 331 and it could not be removed, so now I will never know which few words come between "moodiness" and "crabbedness". David, I can only suggest a search of second-hand sellers. I hope you find a copy.

Ann Turnbull said...

Hmmm...just re-read your post and realised you don't want an old one. Mine doesn't have 'byte'. It doesn't even have 'computer'. It's brilliant on 'dress' and 'skirt' though! Good luck with your search.

Enid Richemont said...

Have a Roget's. It's falling apart, so went shopping for a replacement. May not try now.

David Thorpe said...

Ah but I am trying, Enid, thank you - so don't give up yourself! I was just wondering.... does any reader have the most recent Penguin edition (150th Anniversary edition?) Publication Date: 5 Aug 2004 | ISBN-10: 0140515038 | ISBN-13: 978-0140515039 | It seems to be the most recent update...

Anonymous said...

Hear hear! I too have dabbled with inferior "other" thesauruses (thesauri??) but have come back to Roget. I'm not at home just now to check but I suspect my version must be the 2004 one, which I find pretty good.

alex.woolf said...

I made the same journey as you, and have come back to my 1987 edition of Roget, which still sits on my desk. It does have 'byte', but not 'Internet'. Even so, I'll never part with it.