• 字海人間|戴啟思
  • 2020-04-30    

 

On the Tip of my Tongue-Dr Roget and his Thesaurus

‘Prose: words in the best order; poetry: the best words in the best order”. So said the early nineteenth English poet and literary critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge about the challenges of writing well.

It is fair to say that even prose writers strive to find the best words to express their ideas and thoughts. Some will write to inform; others will write to persuade. Some writers will use the pen to harangue or discomfit a reader while others will seek to soothe or flatter. However, if writers are concerned about how the message is received and understood, they will choose words carefully so they will engage the reader.

How to choose the right word to convey meaning without resorting to cliché or the commonplace is the really hard part about writing. Some writers have no problems with choosing words. If there is not a word to hand, they invent one. Shakespeare is thought to have made up about four hundred new English words and expressions that fit like a glove into the English language: ‘mountaineer’, ‘moonbeam’ ‘puppy-dog’, ‘ill-tempered’ ‘sportive’ and ‘ungoverned’ are just some of them.

However, few writers have this awesome gift, particularly in an age of near-universal literacy when we look to dictionaries as being the storehouses of all the words that are known. How do you choose the right word for the occasion? How can you add a scintilla of style to your sentence to set off the intended meaning?

The word ‘scintilla’ in the last sentence is not quite the right word. It is word that comes directly from Latin and means ‘spark’. It gives an impression of pedantry. ‘Spark’ or ‘sparkle’ are better choices.

You can shop around for the right word in a convenient place thanks to a doctor and man of science, Doctor Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) who published in 1852 his Thesaurus.

Dr Roget was a remarkable man. He was born in London as the son of a Swiss immigrant and English mother. He went to the best university in Britain at the time-Edinburgh University, where science and medicine were taught well. He became a successful doctor and took an interest in public health and was appointed in 1823 to investigate an epidemic in a London prison.

The Royal College of Physicians gave him its highest accolade in 1831 but he was then already making a name in the scientific field. He invented the ‘log-log’ slide rule for calculating powers and roots of numbers. His paper on the effects of viewing a moving object through a slatted vertical plane-like a Venetian blind-was noted by other scientists and led to the making of the earliest motion pictures. He became Secretary to the Royal Society, the foremost national science academy in the world in the mid-nineteenth century.

Doctor Roget retired from his post as Secretary of the Royal Society in 1848 at the age of sixty-eight. He then turned to a pet project which had occupied him since about 1805. It was his Thesaurus, a collection of words made on a scientific basis whereby clusters of words would be arranged ‘not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express’. (Introduction to the first edition, 1852).

In the category ‘Space’ you will find sections devoted to ‘Dimensions’, ‘Space in General’, ‘Forms’ and ‘Motion’. In the last category you find ‘Ships’ and ‘Aircraft’ and other things that move in Space, as well as the concepts of movement such as ‘Velocity’ and ‘Slowness’. These concepts are broken down further into nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Alongside the head verb ‘decelerate’ you find the words ‘slow down, slow up, ease up, let up, lose momentum, reduce speed’ and more than a dozen other words of similar meaning.

There is great pleasure to be had in dipping into Roget’s Thesaurus which is regularly updated. In an idle hour, it is a pathway leading to a stream of free association of ideas. If you are a writer struggling with finding ‘the right word’, it is a godsend. If you are just inquisitive about language, it is a great educator and a civilising influence. One reason why the villainous Captain Hook in J.M. Barrie’s play Peter Pan is not a lost cause is because we are told ‘The man is not wholly evil-he has a Thesaurus in his cabin’.



About the author

Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.

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