VISIT | Find your words with Dr Roget at West Malvern | Worcestershire
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A doctor and a man of many words and many actions
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"...the intriguing end to an intriguing man - a man of many words..."
They say that he wrote his Thesaurus because he liked many lists. It gave him comfort. That it pacified him in moments of anxiety and trouble. That it created order in his mind. A sense of peace.
So who knew that this particular book of words was designed to calm, soothe and moderate the voices inside us all.
The book I speak of is ever present in every English classroom, every library, reference section and would-be writer the world over. That book is, of course, Roget’s Thesaurus.
‘Dr Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition.’
When it was first published in 1852, it was referred to as thus:
“The man who in writing cannot find the fit word to express a thought, may, if it please him , take down Dr Roget’s Thesaurus, look for the class, containing any word of similar idea, and there he will find a miscellaneous collection, as complete as the compiler could make it, of words and phrases from which he may employ his tact to pick the syllables that suit him best… The practical employer of the book will be directed to the object of his search by a full Synopsis of Categories at the beginning, or a very ample alphabetical index of words placed at the end, occupying 170 three-columned pages. The philosophic student of the English language may undoubtedly pick up as many ideas from the grouping of our words and vulgarisms here attempted, and attempted with a great deal of success”
London Daily News 19th June 1852
Put simply, this is a book of words – but words about words. You need another word for discover – let’s see: perceive, look on, see about, witness, discern, distinguish, determine, find…
And what made Roget’s Thesaurus so special? Well because he was the first to call it so. Thesaurus. Let’s check his thesaurus: ...to find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed…
So here’s the thing? The man who created Roget’s Thesaurus was a man called Roget. Dr Peter Mark Roget. It was an idea he had begun in 1805 – he was 26 years of age. But it was not until 1852 that it was published. It left him with a lifetime of words to describe, utter, transcribe, report and listen to. Because Dr Roget was indeed a medical doctor.
Born in 1779, the only son of the Rev. John Roget who was a minister in one of the Hugenot churches in London. The curious name hailed from his father’s Swiss family history. Aged just 4 years old when his father died from tuberculosis, the family future was saved because of his mother’s family. His maternal uncle was Sir Samuel Romilly.
Romilly had met Roget’s father as a pastor in church and his sister had gone on to marry Roget senior. Romilly was a hugely interesting and influential man – lawyer, politician, legal reformer, abolitionist and a member of the secretive Bowood circle full of philosophers, reformers and at one point the prime minster. He frequently returned to France, having French parents who had had to leave France.
Romilly considered Peter Roget to be like a son to him. He paid for his education, he opened doors for him, widened his eyes and awakened the young man in new ideas, scientific discoveries and philosophies.
Peter Roget was a gifted young man. He gained his medical degree at Edinburgh University and, after a little help from his uncle, became private physician to the Marquis of Lansdowne. Unfortunately, the Marquis died soon after, but it merely gave Roget time to expand and extend his experiences.
He became a tutor for a time to the sons of a northern manufacturer, took them on a Grand Tour of Europe but became stuck in Switzerland when the French leader Napoleon broke the peace of Amiens and annexed the Swiss state. With swift talking and actions, he managed to remove himself with his charges but his friend remained stuck behind Napoleonic lines for over a decade.
His medical career continued apace. He became a physician at Manchester Infirmary sowing the seeds for the Manchester Medical School. He lectured widely. He moved to London and became Secretary of the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society. He investigated scurvy, dysentery and ill heath at Millbank Prison. He was placed as Chairman of the Commission granted by the King into an investigation into the water quality and water in the city of London. The renowned Thomas Telford was selected as Engineer.
In 1828, the report he wrote was released by House of Commons. Aside from the very many interesting facts and figures, it stated that the water from the Thames was pure, but that as it got closer to the city, it became polluted by waste – suspended within the water. A method of filtration was suggested using sand or sand and charcoal. It also stated that the river Thames had declined in the last decade – specifically destroying fishing between Putney Bridge and Greenwich. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, I’m not sure the key men at the time would have wanted to hear this…
He carried on his medical career until the 1840s including as one of the founders of the London University. He retired in 1840 having lectured freely, published multiple different papers, given medical aid to those who needed it despite their background or income. Roget believed in the Utilitarian principles inspired by Jeremy Bentham. He published works on tuberculosis, epilepsy, the anaesthetic effect of laughing gas, the concern over medical care of prisoners and the idea about the perception of animals. He even witnessed his beloved uncle Samuel committing suicide in 1818.
A polymath – he invented the first slide rule, devised the first shutter and aperture apparatus to view what he considered a ‘Singular Optical Deception’ now seen as prototype for a camera and submitted entries for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He loved bees, chess and lists.
When he died aged 90 years of age here in west Malvern in Worcestershire, he was working on the 20th edition of his Thesaurus. It was the 12th September 1869.
And yet for all that, we remember his words. His many, many words. Designed to calm, to coax, to control. And we love him for that. So when you see your next thesaurus, remember this man – doctor, healer, reformer, inventor and list-maker.
And when you’re looking for the right words, just think thesaurus:
...to find the word, or words, by which an idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed…
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Find the grave of Peter Roget in West Malvern church in the suburb of West Malvern in Worcestershire