Peter Mark Roget was born in London in 1779, the son of a French Protestant pastor.
In his day, Roget was celebrated for a huge range of achievements in science, mathematics and medicine — but not lexicography, where his fame has exclusively rested for generations.
He compiled his Thesaurus as a retirement project, intended for his own use. It was published when Dr. Roget was 73 years old.
Roget was a working doctor for most of his life, but he was also a Renaissance Man—a member of various scientific, literary and philosophical societies.
In his spare time he invented a slide rule for performing difficult mathematical calculations, and a method of water filtration that is still in use today.
He wrote papers on a variety of topics, including the kaleidoscope and Dante, and he was one of the contributors to the early Encylopædia Britannica.
He was sixty-one years old, and had just retired from his medical practice, when he decided to devote his retirement to publishing a system of classifying words into groups based on their meanings.
Other scholars had published books of synonyms before, but Roget wanted to assemble something more comprehensive.
He said, “[The book will be] a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express.”
He organized all the words into six categories: Abstract Relations, Space, Matter, Intellect, Volition, Sentient and Moral Powers, and within each category there were many subcategories.
The project took him more than ten years, but he finally published his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases in 1852.
He chose the word “thesaurus” because it means “treasury” in Greek.
Roget’s Thesaurus might have been considered an intellectual curiosity, except that at the last minute Roget decided to include an index. That index, which helped readers find synonyms, made the book into one of the most popular reference books of all time.
It is considered one of the great lexicographical achievements in the history of the English language, and it has been helping English students pad their vocabularies for more than a hundred and fifty years.
From Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac
I found a terrific article by Paul Vallely in the UK newspaper The Independent.
Vallely not only covers Dr. Roget’s incredibly productive mind, but also provocatively delves the question, does Roget’s Thesaurus actually improve the way we think?