The Good Word

Apr 1 2012 @ 1:24pm

Ben Zimmer chronicles writers' love-hate relationship with the thesaurus. It began with Peter Mark Roget's first edition in 1852:

Roget’s thesaurus was crucially a conceptual undertaking, and, according to Roget’s deeply held religious beliefs, a tribute to God’s work. His efforts to create order out of linguistic chaos harks back to the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden, who was charged with naming all that was around him, thereby creating a perfectly transparent language. It was, according to the theology of St. Augustine, a language that would lose its perfection with the Fall of Man, and then irreparably shatter following construction of the Tower of Babel.

By Roget’s time, Enlightenment ideals had taken hold, suggesting that scientific pursuits and rational inquiry could discover antidotes to Babel, if not a return to the perfect language of Adam. Though we no longer cling so tightly to these Enlightenment notions about language in our postmodern age, we still carry with us Roget’s legacy, the view that language can somehow be wrangled and rationalized by fitting the lexicon into tidy conceptual categories.