Peter Mark Roget was born in London in 1779 and studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Who knew? Not I, for all I live just down the road. Yet I make use of Mr Roget’s most famous achievement almost every day of my working life. We have so much to thank him for. Obsessed with lists from the age of eight, he used them to battle depression and while I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, I’m truly thankful that he turned to words for solace.
As writers we put thousands of words onto the page, and constantly finding new ways of expressing yourself is one of many challenges writers face.
Mr Roget’s idea was to make a catalogue (list, inventory, register, record, roll, index, directory, checklist) of words according to similarity of meaning (sense, signification, import, gist, thrust, drift, tenor, message, essence, substance, intention, purport). So when I want to describe my hero’s raffish air, I don’t need to repeat myself – he can be rakish, unconventional, careless, louche, dissolute, decadent, disreputable or even devil-may-care.
Mr Roget’s visionary (far-sighted, prescient, percipient, canny, discerning) idea not only reminds me of the many options available, I find that it also helps to stimulate my creativity, often taking me down avenues I hadn’t previously considered.
Use of his wonderful Thesaurus requires care, however. Don’t use a word that’s suggested unless you are completely sure of the its meaning – and indeed, the nuances of its meaning. Smile is surely one of the hardest words for which to find alternatives – and, unfortunately, it’s in the group of words writers use most often. Mr Roget offers ‘beam’ and ‘grin’, either of which might be apt (though hardly elegant). But choose twinkle, dimple, smirk, simper or leer and you could find yourself in deep water! Fortunately, my online Thesaurus warns about this. “Choose the right word’ it tells me, and goes on to explain why.
Similarly, if I want to describe my heroine’s blue eyes, Roget’s suggestions include azure, cobalt, sapphire, navy, midnight, electric, indigo, royal, air force, robin’s egg, peacock, ultramarine, steel, slate and cyan, each of which will conjure a different image in your readers’ minds. But wait – ‘cyan eyes’? I don’t think so. ‘Electric blue eyes’? Hmm. Rather a startling image!
To be used with caution, then – but I confess that Roget’s Thesaurus is one of the most useful tools in my writing kit (equipment, gear, tackle, resources, toolbox).
As for Mr Roget, he spent most of his life actively involved in medicine. He was one of the founders of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, which later became the Royal Society of Medicine. He later became this body’s Secretary and had a full and distinguished career, retiring in 1840, at the age of 61, to prepare his Thesaurus. It was, Wikipedia tells me, an avocation. I confess I had to look this up in a dictionary. It means a hobby a person engages in outside their main career and that often becomes the activity that defines them.
I looked it up in my Thesaurus, but it offered no alternative words. Mr Roget is unique in his own world.
Do you use a Thesaurus when you write?