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Peter Mark Roget
The Man Who Became a Book
Every day thousands of people worldwide consult Roget’s Thesaurus. How many stop to consider why that endlessly useful reference book is so called? Of those who know that it owes its name to the man who first devised it, how many know anything more about him? Yet Peter Mark Roget was one of the most remarkable men of the nineteenth century and he achieved much in his long life. He did not even begin the great work of classification which bears his name until he was 70. Before that, the polymathic Roget had already made his own contributions to knowledge in a dozen different fields from optics and anatomy to mathematics and education. He would probably have been surprised that his posthumous reputation rests on his thesaurus. No doubt he would have expected that it would be his involvement in the foundation of the University of London that would be his lasting legacy. Or his books on magnetism, galvanism and physiology. Or his scientific papers on persistence of vision, with their later impact on the development of motion pictures. Or his association with major thinkers such as the computer pioneer Charles Babbage and the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The range of his interests was astonishing and, for sixty years, he was at the centre of the intellectual revolution of his times. Nick Rennison’s biography reveals the full story of Roget’s involvement with the great issues and the great personalities of the nineteenth century and recounts the forgotten life behind one of the most famous of all reference books.
Pocket Essentials; September 2009
159 pages; ISBN 9781848396005
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159 pages; ISBN 9781848396005
, or download in
Every day thousands of people consult Roget’s Thesaurus. It has a place on the bookshelves of English speakers around the world. Look in the reference section of any bookshop or the databases of internet booksellers and you will find dozens of current editions of a work that was first published more than a century and a half ago. International Roget’s Thesaurus, Students’ Roget’s, Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, Pocket Roget’s Thesaurus. The list goes on and on. The influence of Roget’s Thesaurus has extended from the work of academic linguists and computer scientists to the dead parrot sketch in Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in which much of the humour derives from John Cleese running through a list of synonyms for ‘dead’ that has quite clearly been culled from the famous reference book. Yet how many of those who consult it stop to consider why that endlessly useful work is called Roget’s Thesaurus? Of those who know that it owes its name to the man who first devised it, how many know anything more about him? A little investigation shows that Peter Mark Roget was one of the more remarkable men of his day and he achieved much in a long life that stretched from the years when Britain was fighting rebellious colonists in the American War of Independence to the high Victorian era. He did not even begin seriously to compile the great work of classification which bears his name until he was 70. Before that, the polymathic Roget had already made his own contributions to knowledge in a dozen different fields, from optics and anatomy to mathematics and education. He might well have been surprised if he had been able to discover that his posthumous reputation rests entirely on his thesaurus. No doubt he would have expected that his involvement in medical education would prove to be an equally lasting legacy. Or his books on magnetism, galvanism and physiology. Or his work on visual perception and the scientific paper on persistence of vision, which was to have an impact he could not have suspected on the later development of motion pictures. Or his association with the Royal Society, then as now the country’s most prestigious scientific society, of which he was Secretary for more than twenty years. The range of Roget’s interests was remarkable and, for the best part of seven decades, he played a leading role in British intellectual and scientific life. Any list of his friends and acquaintances is like a roll call of the great, the good and the greatly gifted in Britain from the late Georgian period to the high Victorian era. Here is a man who inhaled mind-altering substances with Wordsworth and Coleridge; swapped ideas with James Watt, Jeremy Bentham, Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday; crossed swords with the computer pioneer Charles Babbage and the geologist Charles Lyell. Here is a man who was often at the cutting edge of nineteenthcentury research into everything from electricity to infectious diseases.Yet today, although his name lives on in the title of a reference work, the man himself has been largely forgotten. There has been only one major biography of him in the last hundred years and that was published in 1970. This book is not an attempt to match the groundbreaking work of DL Emblen in Peter Mark Roget:The Man and the Word, which remains the definitive life, but it does try to rescue Roget from the indifference of posterity and to provide a short survey of his long and richly productive life.