Kicking into the Infinite Abyss
By Kristen Thompson, Associate Coordinator, Bluegrass Writers Studio
Anyone familiar with my literary ways knows that I’m a devotee of Dr. Peter Mark Roget. Roget was sort of the Charlie Brown of the 19th century. He was a gloomy, sullen sort who most certainly would’ve fallen prey annually to the Van Pelt swiping of the Thanksgiving football, landing on his back with an untranslatable sound of anguish.
By all reports, his melancholy was not entirely his fault, but had roots in the depression, schizophrenia, and suicide in his family. So his pathology was perhaps a bit more involved than a 5-cent diagnosis at a sidewalk stand (nickels! nickels! nickels!), but the result was the same: a quest to make sense of the madness.
What Roget did to bring order to a world made chaotic by paranoia—and the reason I find him to be a kindred spirit—is to make lists. When he was a child, he began with inventories of plants and animals. Then he moved on to words that had similar meanings: like, alike, resembling, favoring, smacking of, comparable, matching meanings. Page after page, he wrote all of the words whose definitions seemed analogous.
Eventually he organized his lists of words by stringing concepts in a line. This is where his intuition and intellect blow my mind. I have a Third Edition Roget’s Thesaurus, published in 1962 (110 years after the original), where one can still follow Roget’s organization of the universe. It begins with Existence, followed by Relation, Quantity, Order, Number, Time, Change, and Eventuality. And these are only the abstractions. From there, Roget continues with links that surely hold universes of lyricism:
Language, Letter, Word, Nomenclature, Anonymity.
Sensation, Insensibility, Pain.
Perfection, Imperfection, Blemish, Mediocrity.
The dictionary-form thesaurus many people know today is a relatively new iteration, and surely has lost much of the nuance of Roget’s original genius: from Wit and Humor to Banter, to Dullness, Tedium, Aggravation, to Relief, to Comfort. As if that weren’t poetry enough, he also believed that, despite similarities between words, there are no true synonyms. That every word is unique when you consider its connotation, denotation, and sound. A man after my own heart, for sure.
So maybe it’s a stretch to compare a doctor, a lister, and the inventor of the slide-rule computation to a gray-cloud-laden cartoon character. But I’d like to think that, given the chance, Roget would have made the connection from brilliance to blockhead, and hence, I can make that journey in reverse.
Published on November 24, 2014