Saturday, March 29, 2008

Thinking about Synonyms.........really....

I was fascinated with the best-selling tale about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary – The Professor and the Madman – by Simon Winchester. Now the author has turned his attention to Peter Mark Roget, the man who gave us one of the best-known reference works in the English Language. Winchester says that Roget's Thesaurus has long been considered one of the great lexicographical achievements in the history of the English language, a reference work of astonishing ubiquity and far-reaching influence.

Peter Mark Roget, was an extraordinary man — polymath, physician, cinema inventor, slide-rule maker, chess master, lexical scholar. His goal, to make sure that what was written and spoken and read was impeccable, led him to classify our language and then distill from that classification a guide to how it might best be made to work.

The article discusses Roget’s accomplishments and personal philosophy. “He held a profound belief in the right of ordinary men and women to know things—to be able fully to appreciate the wonders and complexities of the world. He was influenced by Jeremy Bentham's ideas of utilitarianism, which sought to promote the spread of happiness to the greatest possible number of people. He offered his medical services free to those who couldn't pay. He was a keen supporter of preventive medicine—urging reforms, for example, in London's water supply (and proposing a method of water filtration through sand that is still in use today). He was a founding member of the short-lived Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and he wrote a series of sixpenny treatises—on electricity, galvanism, magnetism, and electromagnetism—that were intended to help poorer and less educated people learn what he and his kind already had the privilege of knowing.”

His vision was that language could come to be seen as an ordered part of the cosmos and he concluded that all words could be placed in one of six classes. He wanted to list and classify synonyms to make language more accessible for all.

As students (of a certain age) we all used Roget’s Thesaurus – looking for that special word to make us appear studied and intelligent. This article examines how Roget, by eschewing definitions, fostered poor inexact writing. The problem is with the nature of synonyms - without definitions how can a person know the difference between a "serpent" or a "snake". Winchester states:

“It offered facile answers to complex linguistic questions. It appealed to a growing desire for snap solutions to tricky verbal situations…. It encouraged a malaprop society. It made for literary window dressing. It was meretricious.”

One of the shortcomings of Roget's Thesaurus is that there is no connotative meaning given for synonyms. Scientist and inventor Wayne Chase of Vancouver has come up with an innovative solution to this problem. He has developed the world’s first connotative language reference tool since Roget’s Thesaurus. It is based on the emotional or connotative meanings of words and phrases.

Connotative meaning is explained:
“Words such as "celebration", "springtime", and "kiss" arouse unique assemblages of positive emotional connotations. Words such as "homeless", "cancer", and "rape" summon clouds of negative emotional connotations. Many words and phrases, such as "bullfight", call up mixed positive and negative connotations. Connotative meaning also includes the evocation of other sensations and impressions, such as "power" (e.g., war) and "activity" (e.g., carnival).”

Visit his website to read about his technology. He might be the next Roget.........

No comments: