Subject: Connotation and Denotation – Roget’s Thesaurus
Event: Birthday of Peter Mark Roget, 1779
On this day in 1779, Peter Mark Roget was born in London. Roget is best known for his groundbreaking work, Roget’s Thesaurus, originally published in 1852. Roget’s work is a pioneering achievement in lexicography — the practice of compiling dictionaries. Instead of listing words alphabetically, as in a traditional dictionary, Roget classified words in groups based on six large classes of words: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition, and affections. Each of these categories is then divided into subcategories, making up a total of 1,000 semantic categories under which synonyms are listed. Like a biologist creating a taxonomy of animal species, Roget attempted to bring a coherent organization to the English word-hoard.
In order to make the categories more accessible, Roget’s son, John Lewis Roget developed an extensive index that was published with the thesaurus in 1879. Roget’s grandson, Samuel Romilly Roget, also worked to edit the thesaurus until 1952.
No one knows for certain how many words there are in the English language, but because of its liberal tradition of borrowing and adopting words from any language it rubs up against, there are more words in English than in any other language. In fact, there are so many more words in English that it is unlikely that the idea of a thesaurus would even be conceived of for a language other than English.
Roget continued the English tradition of borrowing words when he selected a Greek word for the title of his collection: thesauros which means treasury or storehouse. Roget’s original title for his work was The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition.
Like the association of Webster with dictionaries, Roget’s name has become synonymous with thesauri (the irregular plural of thesaurus). Also like Webster, the name Roget is no longer under trademark; therefore, just because a thesaurus is called Roget’s does not mean it has any affiliation with the original work of the Roget family (1).
Generations of writers have turned to Roget’s work to assist their writing. One example is American writer Garrison Keillor, who praised Roget in a 2009 article called, “The Book That Changed My Life”:
The book was Roget’s International Thesaurus. It not only changed my life, but also transformed, diversified, and modulated it by opening up the lavish treasure trove of English, enabling me to dip my pen into glittering pools of vernacular, idiom, lingo, jargon, argot, blather, colloquialisms, officialese, patois, and phraseology of all sorts. . . .(2).
Not all writers or English teachers are fans of the Thesaurus, however. Sometimes it’s a little too easy for a student to grab a thesaurus and insert a synonym that doesn’t quite work in context. For example, a student once wrote the sentence:
Today I ate a really good donut.
Searching for a synonym for the word “good” in his thesaurus, he revised, as follows:
Today I ate a really benevolent donut.
It’s because of mishaps like this that the Irish novelist Roddy Doyle gives the following advice:
Do keep a thesaurus, but in the shed at the back of the garden or behind the fridge, somewhere that demands travel or effort. Chances are the words that come into your head will do fine.
Because there are so many synonyms in English, it’s important for writers to become students of the subtleties of language. The best way to do this is to look at both the denotation of a word and the connotation of a word. A word’s denotation is the literal dictionary meaning of a word; connotation is the implied meaning of a word along with the feelings associated with that word. Denotations can be found easily in a dictionary, but connotations are a bit harder to find. The best way to learn about connotations is to study words in their natural habitat — that is in the writing of professional writers.
Notice, for example, how the writer Charles S. Brooks (1878-1934) explores the subtle differences between the words “wit” and “humor” in the following excerpt:
Wit is a lean creature with sharp inquiring nose, whereas humor has a kindly eye and comfortable girth. Wit, if it be necessary, uses malice to score a point–like a cat it is quick to jump–but humor keeps the peace in an easy chair. Wit has a better voice in a solo, but humor comes into the chorus best. Wit is as sharp as a stroke of lightning, whereas humor is diffuse like sunlight. Wit keeps the season’s fashions and is precise in the phrases and judgments of the day, but humor is concerned with homely eternal things. Wit wears silk, but humor in homespun endures the wind. Wit sets a snare, whereas humor goes off whistling without a victim in its mind. Wit is sharper company at table, but humor serves better in mischance and in the rain. When it tumbles, wit is sour, but humor goes uncomplaining without its dinner. Humor laughs at another’s jest and holds its sides, while wit sits wrapped in study for a lively answer (3).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is the difference between a word’s denotations and its connotations, and why is this distinction important for effective thinking and writing?
Challenge: Is a Rant the Same as a Diatribe?
Clear thinking, cogent communication, and coherent writing depends on diction — a writer’s word choice. Effective thinkers and writers must be students of words, and they must — like Charles S. Brooks — take time to understand the subtle distinctions between words. Just because two words are listed as synonyms does not mean that they are interchangeable. What are two words that — even though they are synonyms — do not mean exactly the same thing? What are the subtle differences in the words’ denotations and connotations? Using Charles S. Brooks’ paragraph as a model, write a paragraph comparing the differences between one of the word pairs below:
mob/crowd, laugh/giggle, student/scholar, teen/juvenile, old/ancient, wealthy/rich, gregarious/social, frugal/cheap, watch/gaze, bright/smart, late/tardy, sleep/slumber, transform/change, proud/arrogant, wisdom/intelligence, confident/cocky, jail/prison
As you write, consider both the denotations and especially the connotations of the two words.
1 – Crystal, David. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
2- Keillor, Garrison. “The Book That Changed My Life.” Best Life. March 2009: 46.
3-Brooks, Charles. “On the Difference Between Wit and Humor.”