Born of a Victorian desire for order and harmony among nations, this guide to the English language is as unique as it is indispensable

Like the striations in a Mesozoic rock, the accumulated word hoard of English reflects successive upheavals: Roman invasion, seasonal Danish incursion, varieties of Anglo-Saxon terror, and finally Norman conquest. The result is a massive vocabulary that dwarfs all rivals. Where French has about 100,000 words, and German approximately 185,000, English boasts some 500,000 words (in the OED), with a further 400,000 technical terms not even listed. Above all, and as a result of these successive accretions, English is rich in synonyms, making the language a peculiarly subtle medium for the expression of fine shades of meaning. In The English People (1947), Orwell addresses this quality.

He writes: English vocabulary is made much larger than it appears by the practice of turning one part of speech into another. For example, almost any noun can be used as a verb; this in effect gives an extra range of verbs, so that you have knife as well as stab, school as well as teach, fire as well as burn, and so on English is also a borrowing language. It readily takes over any foreign word that seems to fill a need. A recent example is the word blitz.

To the creative mind, this incredible versatility represents a wonderful polyphony; to the rational mind, chaos; to an inquiring Victorian scientist, the opportunity for a taxonomic field day. The unique upshot: the English writers beloved thesaurus, a volume we now take for granted as the indispensable companion to any dictionary; an extraordinary and remarkable invention whose author was first and foremost a scientist.

In his own time, Dr Peter Mark Roget was most renowned for a now forgotten volume, Animal and Vegetable Physiology Considered With Reference to Natural Theology (1834), one of several works commissioned by the Earl of Bridgewater to celebrate the power, wisdom and goodness of God, as manifested in the creation. As such, Roget had a strong personal investment in the power and importance of language, the word of God. However, to engage with this mystery, Roget believed mankind should have appropriate equipment.

Every workman in the exercise of his art should be provided with proper implements, he wrote in 1852, expressing the sober and professional spirit of his age. The writer employs for the accomplishment of his purposes the instrumentality of words. It is therefore essential to his success that he be provided with a copious vocabulary. More than just fortunate recipients of great linguistic forces, all writers should possess perfect field intelligence, an entire command of all the resources and appliances of his language, to make each of them an emperor of words.

Behind this grand theme was the larger Victorian purpose of successfully administering an ordered world. Roget knows that, with language, everything is at stake: Strict accuracy should regulate our use of language. Otherwise, false logic might sway the unthinking multitude. Worse, he writes, a misnomer can turn the tide of popular opinion; an artful watchword, thrown among combustible material, has kindled the flame of deadly warfare, and changed the destiny of an empire.

Roget was a distinguished scientist and mathematician, as well as an eminent Victorian. All his life, he had carried a notebook in which he jotted lists of related words and phrases with which to improve his self-expression. Finally, in retirement, aged 71, he set about turning these lists into a system that would regulate the unruly chaos of his adopted tongue (the Roget family had been French migrs).

As the child of refugees, coming late to English, Roget has no interest in obsolete terms and is strikingly hospitable to foreign borrowings, sometimes a matter of contention in lexicographical circles. In his preface to the first edition, he writes:

Words which have, in process of time, become obsolete, are of course rejected from this collection. On the other hand, I have admitted a considerable number of words and phrases borrowed from other languages, chiefly the French and Latin, some of which may be considered as already naturalised; while others, though avowedly foreign, are frequently employed in English composition, particularly in familiar style, on account of their being peculiarly expressive, and because we have no corresponding words of equal force in our own language.

The first edition of Rogets Thesaurus of English words and phrases was constructed around six primary categories, partly based on Aristotle, which survive in a modified form into the latest version: abstract relations; space; the material world; the intellect; volition; and sentient and moral powers.

Each of these, like branches stemming from a tree, were further divided into sub-categories (known as heads). In the Longmans edition of May 1852, there were just 1,000 heads. Abstract relations, for instance, divided into existence; relation; quantity; etc and existence divided into existence; non-existence; substantiality; insubstantiality; intrinsicality; extrinsicality, and so on.

For all his taxonomic zeal, Rogets treasure house, whose purpose was to exhibit with scientific precision the relations between words and their meanings, together with their logical opposition, quickly became both a hall of mirrors and a cacophonous echo-chamber in which the astounding and magical variety of the English language took over in accumulating arpeggios of antonym and synonym.

There was also the more popular, and often overlooked, dimension of Rogets work: his was a new kind of lexicon that acknowledged colloquialisms and horrors slang, for example, wassail, swig, soak, souse, booze, and guzzle. His became a sober-minded book with many unintended and wayward outcomes. For instance, without Rogets entry for extinct (no more, dead and gone, defunct, etc) there might have been no Monty Python parrot sketch:

Es not pining [for the fjords]! Es passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! Es expired and gone to meet is maker! Es a stiff! Bereft of life, e rests in peace! If you hadnt nailed im to the perch ed be pushing up the daisies! Is metabolic processes are now istory! Es off the twig! Es kicked the bucket, es shuffled off is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

As a true Victorian, Roget himself had bigger ambitions than the liberation of the free mind. He saw his thesaurus as the building block in a grander project, the construction of a universal language, for the realisation of a golden age of union and harmony among nations. What we, his inheritors, got is something much better, and more useful: an indispensable guide (explanation, clarification, commentary, glossary, lexicon) to the mysteries (form, order, practice, functioning, performance) of a language now used more widely across the world (earth, planet, geosphere, sphere, home of man) than any other.

A signature sentence

The present work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto un-supplied in any language; namely 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.

Three to compare

Dr Samuel Johnson: A Dictionary of the English Language (1755)
James Murray (ed): A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (1884)
HW Fowler: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926)

Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases by Dr Peter Mark Roget is available from Cambridge University Press (27.99). To order a copy, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/01/100-best-nonfiction-books-roget-thesaurus-english-words-phrases

The 100 best nonfiction books: No 65 Thesaurus by Dr Peter Mark Roget (1852)
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