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4th September 1998 at 01:00
ROGET'S THESAURUS OF ENGLISH WORDS AND PHRASES. Edited by Betty Kirkpatrick. Penguin pound;14.99.

The latest 'Roget's' seems a little overcrowded. But, argues Jean Aitchison, amid the bustle and congestion it is still possible to catch the occasional glimpse of a familiar friend

Traffic calming, sandwich generation, web site, scratch-card, cyberpet. If you are unfamiliar with any of these words and phrases, then the new Roget's will enlighten you - if you can find them amid the lush, sprawling undergrowth of this new version of the well-known thesaurus, last revised 10 years ago.

Like a massive patchwork quilt, or over-stuffed sofa, this new edition has, according to the blurb, absorbed "thousands of new words", all fitted into the same format as the original edition, produced in 1852 by Peter Mark Roget, a retired doctor and lecturer in medicine.

Roget began work on the thesaurus in his early lecturing days when he carried around a notebook in which he collected related words and phrases to help him express himself clearly. In his seventies, he organised these lists into a coherent system, which was "intended to supply, with respect to the English language, a desideratum hitherto unsupplied in any language; namely, a collection of the words it contains . . . according to the ideas which they express".

The thesaurus was to be a "helping hand" for those "painfully groping their way and struggling with the difficulties of composition", a time when "Like 'spirits from the vasty deep', they (words) come not when we call".

The result is a bizarre hybrid of a browser's paradise and a writer's tool. It is more than a mere synonym dictionary, yet its breadth makes it more difficult to navigate, in spite of the alphabeticised index. Part of the problem lies with the original categorisation.

Roget established six primary categories, which are still retained: abstract relations; space; matter; intellect; volition; and emotion, religion and morality. The world fits with difficulty into these categories, as much today as 150 years ago. For example, the new entry for sundried tomatoes appears before love-apple within the vegetable subdivision of food. But the food subsection appears in the motion section which in turn is in the main space category. It is sandwiched between ejection - which includes ejaculation, vomit, belch, crepitation - and excretion, which includes hawking, cough, haemorrhage, diarrhoea, dung and phlegm. Only a few foods, though not sun-dried tomatoes, are repeated under subsections within the matter category, such as condiments or sweetness.

Food, therefore, illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of Roget's. In this edition, various extra edibles have been slotted in. So Olestra (a trademark), corn oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil and olive oil have turned up alongside butter, margarine, ghee, dripping and lard; cookery magazine and cookery programme have arrived beside cookery book; nut roast and nut loaf have been added between hamburger and goulash; pilau and pilaff are inserted beside paella; tortilla, burrito, chimichanga and fajita take their place alongside taco, and so on.

Yet this edition retains a plethora of old, rarely used words (judging by their absence from most modern dictionaries, and from the British National Corpus, a recently compiled database of spoken and written language). So manducation appears (an "act of chewing", according to the Oxford English Dictionary, where it has a last date of 1877), as does omophagia ("eating of raw food", with a most recent OED date of 1706). Arguably, such oldies could either have been cut out, or labelled archaic.

Annotation is an intrinsic part of this new edition.Some words - such as blowout and bean feast - have been annotated "inf" (informal); others - such as grub, tuck, nosh, scoff, chow - have been labelled "sl" (slang). "Inf" and "sl" have been introduced in place of the previous edition's "vulg", which did not occur in the food section, but was found in the following excretion section, attached to the four-letter words crap, piss and shit (now labelled "sl"). Piddle and pee were unmarked in the previous edition, but are now "inf".

All these minor amendments give some idea of the piecemeal nature of the latest alterations, like someone trying to shove bits and pieces into an already over-full attic. Two questions arise: first, could anything more have been done with Roget's, other than stuffing in new words? Second, is it still useful?

As already noted, obsolete words should be either removed, or labelled as such. But beyond that, it is hard to see how Roget's could be more usefully updated. Strictly speaking, it is past its sell-by date. Yet many people have a sentimental attachment to it, and regard it, perhaps like The Bible and an A-Z dictionary, as an essential adornment on a bookshelf, which is there "just in case". And for browsing, yes, it is still fun, though for serious work a synonym dictionary is more practical.

Roget's, then, is increasingly a curiosity rather than a writer's tool. It is like an eccentric relative or wobbly-legged table, something which inspires affection but is not as useful as it was.

But there is one reason why this new edition may be worth buying: its format. It is larger than its predecessor, the lines are further apart, and the font is clear. So, now that it is more readable, it can be regarded as a worthwhile old friend, something "affording comfort, comfy, homely, snug, cosy, warm, comforting, restful", and yes, occasionally, "useful, utile, of use, helpful, of service".

Jean Aitchison is Rupert Murdoch professor of language and communication at the University of Oxford

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