Peter Roget

Peter Mark Roget was born in London on January 18, 1779, the son of a Swiss clergyman. He is, of course, best remembered today as the original compiler of Roget’s Thesaurus, but that was his project in retirement. During his lifetime, he did a wide variety of things.

He was originally trained as a doctor, graduating from Edinburgh University in 1798. Early in his career, he published works on tuberculosis and on the effects of nitrous oxide, known as ‘laughing gas,’ sometimes used as an anesthetic. According to one piece I read, he was a very solemn man and swore the laughing gas had no effect on him. After an active practice in Bristol and Manchester, he moved back to London, where he was a lecturer in medical topics. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society and from 1827 to 1848 served as its secretary. And he was one of the founders of London University.

In 1814 he invented the slide rule, which was used to calculate roots and powers of numbers until the invention of the pocket calculator in the twentieth century. He was interested in other things as well and discovered that images were retained by the retina of the human eye for fractions of a second before being replaced by the succeeding ones. He created the thaumatrope in 1825, which has two different images, one each side, which when spun, appear to make the images merge, creating the very first ‘motion picture.’ Some consider him the father of animation. You can see a thaumatrope in action on YouTube. He also wrote on a wide range of topics, contributing to encyclopedias of his time.

It seems Roget was what we might call today obsessive compulsive, and he had been making all sorts of lists since he was a small boy. When he retired in 1840, he spent the rest of his life creating his thesaurus (a Greek word meaning treasure house), officially called Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases. He first published it in 1852, and it has been in print ever since. During his lifetime the work had twenty-eight printings; after his death in 1869 it was revised and expanded by his son, John Lewis Roget, and later by John’s son, Samuel Romilly Roget.


In honor of his thesaurus, which I love, quotes about words

All our words are but crumbs that fall down from the feast of the mind.–Kahlil Gibran

I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.–Emily Dickinson

It has not been for nothing that the word has remained man’s principal toy and tool: without the meanings and values it sustains, all man’s other tools would be worthless.–Lewis Mumford

It’s always a bit of a struggle to get the words right, whether we’re a Hemingway or a few fathoms below his level.–Rene J. Cappon

Knowledge of things and knowledge of the words for them grows together. If you do not know the words, you can hardly know the thing.–Henry Hazlitt

The power of words is immense. A well-chosen word has often sufficed to stop a flying army, to change a defeat into victory, and to save an empire.–Emile de Girardin

To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the music the words make.–Truman Capote

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean.–Neil Gaiman

Words are the most powerful thing in the universe… Words are containers. They contain faith, or fear, and they produce after their kind.–Charles Capps

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