LINGUIST List 26.3132

Thu Jul 02 2015

Review: History of Ling; Lexicography: Roget (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 10-Apr-2015
From: Natallia Shulha <>
Subject: Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Peter Mark Roget
TITLE: Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases
SUBTITLE: Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Natallia Shulha, Belarusian State Pedagogical University named after Maxim Tank

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


The reviewed “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases” by Peter Mark Roget is a facsimile of the first edition of 1852 with 15,000 entries, many of which the reader can encounter in the original 1805 book manuscript called “Collections of English Synonyms Classified and Arranged” (Roget 1805). The aim of both works was, as stated on the cover of the Thesaurus, “to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition”. However, whereas the penned version was intended for personal use, to help the author to overcome his “own deficiencies” (p. iii), the printed edition was made public, seeking to provide “every workman in the exercise of his art <…> with proper implements” (p. vii).

The book has a clear structure: a 4-page preamble, prepared by the publisher, and a 458-page Thesaurus, compiled by Peter Mark Roget. It opens with a short note on the Cambridge Library Collection and a brief biography of the author, which is followed by an exact copy of the original Thesaurus title page. What makes it noteworthy is an epigraph from J.H. Tooke’s introduction to “Epea Ptepoenta or, The Diversions of Purley” published in 1798, that allegedly “inspired Roget to think big – and to think systematically” (Kendall 2009, p. 168). By classifying and arranging English words and phrases in 1,000 synonym clusters, organized not alphabetically but semantically, i.e. by concepts and ideas, Dr. Roget seemed to follow Tooke’s instruction: “You will begin then either with things or ideas: for it is impossible we should ever thoroughly understand the nature of the signs, unless we first properly consider and arrange the things signified” (Tooke 1840, p. 8).

For reviewing convenience, the Thesaurus can be split into two parts. (1) The first part contains a two-page author’s preface, an introduction, a one-page plan of classification and a tabular synopsis of categories. (2) The second part consists of the main body of the Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, is preceded by a short list of abbreviations and is followed by an alphabetical index.

(1) In the preface Roget shares the story of Thesaurus creation and hopes modestly that his work with “numerous deficiencies and imperfections” (p. iv) will be of use to others.

In the introduction the author justifies the need for his work by opposing the arrangement of an alphabetical dictionary to the conceptual structure of the thesaurus, which aims “to hold out a helping hand” (p. vi) to those who want to possess and/or master the art of communicating their thoughts by means of either written or spoken language. Amid his reflections on the connection between language and reasoning (pp. viii-x), synonymy and antonymy (pp. xii-xvi), linguistic relativity (p. xiii) and the possibility of constructing a philosophical language, Roget justifies the scope and layout of his Thesaurus. Given the multitude of English words and phrases, the author explains to the reader why some lexemes such as vulgarisms, borrowings and neologies are included in his collection, while other units representing specific terminology, obsoletisms and “conjugate words” (p. ixx) are excluded.

Roget’s hierarchical classification can be metaphorically compared to a small fir tree which has:

a) about 15,000 needles (i.e. words and phrases) that make up entry articles;

b) 1,000 twigs (i.e. heads of signification) that represent clusters of words expressing “correlative ideas” (p. xii);

c) nearly 100 boughs (i.e. subsections) that unite several semantically related heads;

d) 24 branches (i.e. sections) that comprise thematically close subsections; and

e) 6 whorls (i.e. classes) that are in the top of Roget’s hierarchy since they unite sections with a multitude of lexical items under the categories of ‘Abstract Relations’ (class I), ‘Space’ (class II), ‘Matter’ (class III), ‘Intellect’ (class IV), ‘Volition’ (class V) and ‘Affections’ (class VI).

Interestingly, although Roget names 1,000 heads in both the plan of classification and the tabular synopsis of categories, in fact, there are 3 additional sub-heads – ‘Absence of Intellect’ (p. 98), ‘Indiscrimination’ (p. 103) and ‘Release’ (p. 186).

(2) Distinguished merely for the purposes of summarizing, the so-called “second part” of the book begins with a list of abbreviations which demonstrates that besides nouns the Thesaurus registers participles, epithets, phrases, interjections, verbs, adverbial expressions and adverbs, adjectives and “words having the power of adjectives” (p. xxxx).

The main body of the Thesaurus provides a classic exemplar of “cumulative synonymies” (Hartmann and James 1998, pp. 142-143) where words of similar sense instead of being defined and discriminated are simply enlisted and arranged into semantic groups under corresponding subsections, sections and classes, with 80 per cent of heads having the so-called “polar pairs” (Hüllen 2009, p. 24). For this reason, most pages of the Thesaurus have a two-column arrangement: articles in the left column are antonymous to the articles in the right.

As a general principle, entry articles have the following order: 1) the number of the head given in brackets; 2) the article’s nominal headword printed in capital letters; 3) non-alphabetical sequence of cumulative synonyms grouped according to word classes. Some entries are crossed-referenced by numbers with neighboring semantic fields. The fact that each page has a header indicating both headwords and reference numbers for entry articles, subsections, sections and classes facilitates locating respective entries within the text.

The search for words or, more precisely, ideas is also simplified by means of of a three-column alphabetical index of heads that are accompanied by the Arabic numbers under which they occur.


The paperback cover of the book under review depicts a portrait of the man who, despite not being a professional philologist, compiled one of the most popular and best-selling thesauri in the history of lexicography. Having undergone many revised, updated and expanded editions since its first publication, this book made its creator – Peter Mark Roget – a household name.

A critical reading of the first edition of the Thesaurus will reveal some shortcomings by today’s standards. For example, some may be put off by the lack of an explicit scientific method for organizing vocabulary, which results in a number of rather subjective and sensitive entries such as ‘Pseudo-revelation’ (p. 244).

However, the biggest drawback is the lack of consistent referencing found throughout the text. While quoting some English or Latin phrases like “To die of a rose in aromatic pain” (p. 198) or “spretae injuria formae” (p. 207), Roget never provides any references to the source, probably thinking that his reader will know Alexander Pope and Virgil by heart. It is also not clear what sources were used by Roget to compile his Thesaurus or why he never referred to a remarkably similar work that is said to have inspired his classification (see e.g. Hüllen 2000, Hüllen 2004, Kendall 2009, Emblen 1970) – “An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language” (Wilkins 1668, pp. 23-296). It should be said though that the name of Bishop Wilkins was indeed casually mentioned on p. xxiii as well as referenced in footnotes for the headwords ‘neverness’ (p. 26), ‘everness’ (p. 27) and ‘nullibiety’ (p. 45).

Aside from the preceding criticism, which might be unfair considering the age of the book, the author’s work is very impressive. Since Roget’s “classification of the ideas which are expressible by language” (p. x) captures the main spheres of life, I would define his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases of 1852 as an encyclopedia of English life for that particular period. For example, modern readers can learn what clothes Roget’s contemporaries wore (pp. 55-56), what means of transportation they used (pp. 63-65) and what religious institutions they attended (pp. 246-247), although they were at the same time rather superstitious as is illustrated by an extensive list of divination forms such as ‘belomancy’, ‘alomancy’ and ‘alectryomancy’ (p. 117).

From a strictly lexicological point of view, this first edition of the Thesaurus can serve as a finder for archaic and obsolete vocabulary as well as demonstrate that words can completely change their meaning over time (like ‘caviar’ (p. 41)) or lose and acquire new senses in present-day English (like ‘begrime’ (p. 155)). Moreover, the Thesaurus can be used as an effective tool for demonstrating how the norms of spelling have changed, especially as regards hyphenation (‘now-a-days’ (p. 28)) and gemination (‘abattis’ (p. 173)).

Overall, the Thesaurus will make a very interesting object for research, especially through comparison with subsequent British and American editions of different years. Changes in lexical content of entry articles from edition to edition will demonstrate how humankind has evolved technically, intellectually and morally over the last century and a half. Finally, as compulsory reading for lexicologists, lexicographers and translators of historical novels, this book will also be of particular interest to scholars and students who are looking for new linguistic topics to explore.


Emblen, Donald L. 1970. Peter Mark Roget: The Word and the Man. New York: Crowell.

Hartmann, R.R.K and James, Gregory. 1998. Dictionary of Lexicography. London: Routledge.

Hüllen, Werner. 2000. Wilkins’s Tables and Roget’s Thesaurus: An Investigation into Traditions of Onomaseology. The Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas Bulletin 35. 15-26.

Hüllen, Werner. 2004. A History of Roget’s Thesaurus: Origins, Development, and Design. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hüllen, Werner. 2009. Networks and Knowledge in Roget’s Thesaurus. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kendall, Joshua. 2009. The Man Who Made Lists: Love, Death, Madness, and the Creation of Roget’s Thesaurus. New York: Berkley Books.

Roget, Peter M. 1805. Roget’s Thesaurus. The Original Manuscript, (25 March, 2015.)

Tooke, John H. (ed.). 1840. Epea Ptepoenta: Or The Diversions of Purley. London: Thomas Tegg.

Wilkins, John. 1668. An Essay towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language. London: S. Gellibrand.


Natallia Shulha holds a PhD in linguistics and is currently an assistant professor of English at Maxim Tank Belarusian State Pedagogical University. Her research has focused on revealing typological similarities and differences in Belarusian, Russian and English with respect to reduplication.

Page Updated: 02-Jul-2015