Little Bits of History

What’s the Word?

Posted in History by patriciahysell on April 29, 2010

The esteemed author

April 29, 1852: One of the three most used books in the world is published for the first time. The other two books are Webster’s Dictionary and The Bible. Peter studied medicine at Edinburgh University by the age of fourteen and assumed a practice by age nineteen. He was particularly interested in the senses. Visual perception was his specialty. In 1824, Peter wrote a paper that described an optical illusion that is the basis for our modern movie industry. While the explanation itself wasn’t truly accurate, the paper led to the development of the Thaumatrope, Phenakistiscope and Zoetrope.

Peter’s life was marred by several episodes of disaster. Both his father and his wife died young. His uncle, a famous politician and reformer, committed suicide in Peter’s presence. Peter also suffered from depression and battled the effects for most of his life. His work is said to have been a method of solace and a means to escape the grinding symptoms of the disease.

Peter was a prolific writer and lecturer as well as physician. He contributed treatises, articles and even whole books on the subject of health. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Society for the Diffusion of Knowledge at the University of London. In that capacity, he also wrote several manuals. He was interested in making his writings and lectures interesting and so he kept a list of words that could be used interchangeably. He knew it gave his writing more pizzazz than using the same words over and over.

When Peter retired from medicine, he was not yet ready to stop all work. He continued to work with his list of words. At the age of 73, he finally opted to publish this list. They were not listed alphabetically, but by subject matter. The original manuscript contained 15,000 words. His book has never been out of circulation since it’s first printing and now contains close to a quarter million words. What is this important, significant, vital, essential, principal, necessary work? Peter Roget’s Thesaurus, of course.

“No man means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” – Henry Brooks Adams

“A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the word you first thought of.” – Burt Bacharach

“What’s another word for Thesaurus?” – Stephen Wright

“County library? Reference desk, please. Hello? Yes, I need a word definition. Well, that’s the problem. I don’t know how to spell it and I’m not allowed to say it. Could you just rattle off all the swear words you know and I’ll stop you when…Hello?” – Calvin & Hobbes

Also on this day, in 1992 riots broke out in Los Angeles after police were acquitted of using undue force against Rodney King.

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