The Birth of Roget’s Thesaurus
by Garrett Socol
It took British surgeon and inventor PM Roget 47 years
to create the thesaurus. When his
invention The Hands-Free Umbrella failed, the thesaurus became the esteemed
doctor's lifelong obsession. He lived
and breathed all things lexical.
An audio tape of Roget’s inaugural creative session was recently discovered
at the British Library, the London facility that houses more than 150 million
items of international importance.
The tape was found underneath the original Magna Carta, and according
to Senior Library Manager Abigail Cosgrove-Cumberbatch, the discovery was
nothing short of miraculous. “The
tape was gathering dust for a half century,” Cosgrove-Cumberbatch reported.
“If I hadn’t assigned my assistant Pauline Finch-Halifax to take inventory,
we still wouldn’t know about its existence, and what a loss that would
Cosgrove-Cumberbatch is an avid activist for the English language. “At the end of the day, all we have is the
spoken word,” she explained. “We may
lose our homes, our husbands and our dignity, our children may run far away
and refuse to take our phone calls, our friends may dwindle in number, but we
still hold onto our language.”
Assisted by PM Roget’s devoted wife Nan (who was
assigned to write everything in longhand), the tape documents the birth of
the vital reference book we know as the thesaurus. The following is a transcript.
PM: We should start, of course, with the
NAN: Not necessarily, dear.
PM: Why not?
NAN: Let’s be bold and jump ahead to L in honor
of our precious little Lilly. We’ll
get to A later.
PM: All right then. L for Lilly.
PM: Lab is short for laboratory. Not a word unto itself.
NAN: But it’s a word people use.
PM: We’ll come up with synonyms when we get to
NAN: Are you sure we shouldn’t have at least
one or two suggestions for lab?
PM: Quite sure.
NAN: Suit yourself.
PM: Moving on. L-A-B-A. Nothing.
NAN: L-A-B-O-R. Labor.
PM: Yes, labor. Noun. Activity. Endeavor.
NAN: Industry is not a synonym for labor,
PM: It can be used as a synonym.
NAN: Not to my thinking.
PM: I didn’t ask for your thinking, only for
your writing. Labor also happens to
be a verb. To toil, strive, travail.
NAN: Work oneself to the bone.
PM: Work oneself to the bone is five words.
NAN: But that’s what real labor is.
PM: Work works. But not work oneself to the bone.
NAN: When was the last time you worked yourself
to the bone?
PM: You’re missing the point.
NAN: May we continue please?
PM: We may not. There are more synonyms for labor.
NAN: I’m tired of labor.
PM: I just realized something: Label should come before labor.
NAN: Of course, how could we have overlooked
label? Label is a…trademark, design.
PM: Also epithet, classification.
NAN: Classification? I think not.
PM: I don’t think not.
NAN: Just because I classify you as stubborn doesn‘t
mean I’m assigning a label.
PM: It can be construed as a label. Write it down.
NAN: I’m bored with L. Let’s go to D for our darling little
PM: For Debbie. D-A-A. Nothing. D-A-B.
Dab. Verb. To smear.
NAN: To touch.
PM: No, no no. I can touch you without dabbing you. Dabbing implies something on your fingertips like a stinging
ointment or a poisonous liquid that I might smear on your tongue while you’re
NAN: Then how about plaster, smudge, pat?
And flick, peck, spot, stroke.
NAN: What comes after dab?
D-A-E-. D-A-F. Daft.
Synonyms for daft please.
NAN: Silly, funny, humorous.
PM: Also demented, cracked, deliberately
NAN: That’s two words, dear.
PM: Well, some people happen to be
NAN: You’re breaking your own rule.
PM: I’m allowed.
NAN: And I’m not? How can you expect me to live by a different set of rules? That’s the mark of a Fascist state.
PM: Let’s jump ahead to W in honor of our
frightful little Winifred.
NAN: Why would we do that?
PM: Because the mood struck me.
NAN: Fine, W then.
PM: Werewolf. A predatory mammal that sucks the blood from its prey. You must have scores of synonyms for that.
NAN: No, darling. Waste and want and weakling would precede werewolf, wouldn’t
PM: They would. So would wallop.
Verb. To bash, belt, pummel.
PM: Jab is good too, along with clobber,
strike, slug in the jaw with unrestrained force.
NAN: What are you trying to tell me?
PM: That perhaps you’re right. Perhaps we should include two, three and
four-word phrases in addition to singular synonyms.
NAN: I’m glad you finally see the light.
PM: Frankly, I don’t know what took me this
NAN: Maybe you spent too much time crossing
your t’s and dotting your i’s.
PM: Nothing wrong with paying attention to
NAN: There’s a limit. I can judge a man by his i’s, you know. If you ask me, his i’s are the windows to his
soul. Soul. Noun. Spirit. Essence.
PM: And what do my i’s tell you about my
NAN: That you’re a...
At this point, the audio tape goes
silent for fifteen seconds. Then
there’s the rustling of paper and the commanding voice of Dr. Roget.
PM: I will begin with the letter A. A-L-O-N-E. Alone. Adjective. Solo.
Single. Unaccompanied. Ecstatic beyond measure.
continues for several hours without the assistance of Nan.
Cosgrove-Cumberbatch has listened to the entire tape at least two dozen times
and hasn’t tired of it. “It’s music
to my ears,” she said, dressed in a conservative but stylish yellow pantsuit,
the kind of outfit Gwyneth Paltrow might wear to a pelvic exam. “Imagine a Shakespearean scholar coming
upon an undiscovered work by the Bard.
That’s how thrilling this is.
Dr. Roget, I salute you.”
When asked about
the rather contentious bickering of Dr. and Mrs. Roget, the professorial
Cosgrove-Cumberbatch responded, “It’s perfectly natural for marital partners
to disagree, differ, dissent, especially during the creative process. When the juices are flowing, emotional
abuse and physical violence are often a natural part of the process.”
with the territory,” Finch-Halifax added.
positively,” the vociferous Cosgrove-Cumberbatch stated. “However, I’d like to unequivocally dispel
the rumors about Roget’s purported erectile dysfunction. They are categorically false. Unfounded. Erroneous.”
“True,” Finch-Halifax said. “In fact, some experts believe Algerian
philosopher Albert Camus was the culprit, creating the rumors, spreading them,
and deliberating trying to defile the reputation of Dr. Roget out of pure,
“You know what
they say: Hell hath no fury like a jealous Algerian.”
The audio tape
has been placed in the Sound Archive of the British Library which also houses
the 1902 recording of Sarah Bernhardt ‘s “Phedre,” the 1953 ceremony in which
Elizabeth II was crowned Queen of England, and the 1996 hit single “Wannabe”
by the Spice Girls.
Garrett Socol's fiction
has been published in Ghoti Magazine, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, 3:AM
Magazine and nth position. He is the recipient of a Gracie Award
and a Prism Award for his work in television. He created "Talk
Soup," among other successful cable TV shows. His plays have been
produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Pasadena Playhouse.