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Our Content and Communications Manager, Hannah, takes a look at Roget’s Thesaurus and its importance.

Anyone involved in writing on a regular basis will probably be familiar with the feeling of knowing what it is that you want to say, but struggling to identify the particular word that will allow you to accurately communicate the precise meaning that you have in mind.

Enter Peter Mark Roget and his ‘Thesaurus’. In 1805, Roget was a young doctor who spent a lot of time lecturing and who, feeling the need to improve his powers of expression but unable to grasp the appropriate word in any sort of timely manner, devised his own instrument to help him to do so. Initially referred to as a ‘classed catalogue of words’, this became the first thesaurus.

To those of us whose natural instinct for locating an alternative word would be to turn to an online thesaurus, we would expect to type in the word or words that we can recall, which are close to the word we are looking for but are not quite right, and the thesaurus will provide us with a multitude of alternative suggestions.

But let’s consider for a moment how this same process would have worked in Roget’s day – i.e. pre-Internet. When searching online, thesaurus.com (based on Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Third Edition) will present you with a page of words that are associated with the word you have entered. In print, this functionality is not an option. For instance, with a printed dictionary, we all know that you have to flick through the pages alphabetically to find the word that you are searching for and to read the description and variations of the word in question. However, whereas with a dictionary each word requires its own listing (as multiple words are never likely to mean precisely the same thing), a thesaurus does not index its entries alphabetically.

To list each of the entries of a thesaurus alphabetically would mean that each of the words would be reproduced many times – as many times as the word has synonyms. By repeating and reproducing these lists, using each and every word as a heading in its own right, the thesaurus would become enormous – physically – taking up significantly more space than a dictionary. By doing so, the ‘user experience’ (as we often now label this), would not be very positive and would no doubt deter many individuals from using a thesaurus at all.

In Roget’s day, using only paper and pen to keep on top of his growing encyclopaedia of words, he therefore needed to devise a system of categorising words into topics, so that each word only needed to be listed once – allowing many more words to be featured within the restricted confines of a printed reference.

Roget devised a method which groups all of the featured vocabulary under topic ‘heads’, for instance, ‘resentment’. The topic heads are then categorised further – for instance the verb ‘resent’ and the adjective ‘resentful’, under which people can find alternative suggestions for their particular requirements, e.g. anger (n), get angry (v) or angry (adj).

In the Conscious Communications office we boast a well-used, dog-eared, front-cover-less edition of Roget’s Thesaurus from 1966 (that, if you are interested to know, cost £1.75 new), which features 990 topic ‘heads’ – more modern editions may well feature more topic ‘heads’ to incorporate new trends in language as well as new topics (the Internet itself no doubt requiring new topics to be devised).

So does our team prefer to use our well-loved hard copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, or the online thesaurus.com? In the 21st century, we are afforded the best of both worlds; when we’re out and about we are able to search online for that phenomenal phrase that we can’t quite put our finger on, without missing a beat, and when we’re in the office we like to take a little more time to leaf through the hard copy to locate the exact language required. Either way, you are likely to find us singing the praises of Roget’s Thesaurus!



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