Dr Roget’s invention has been a curse as well as a blessing

In a year packed with anniversaries worthy of note, here’s another one.  Exactly 145 years ago, a British lexicographer by the name of Dr Peter Mark Roget died/expired/passed away/passed over/kicked the bucket/snuffed it.  His contribution to the English Language is considered to be enormous/huge/colossal/gigantic/astronomical.  His invention is certainly prevalent/abundant/hegemonic/predominant in most bookcases.

Dr Peter Roget (1779-1869)
Dr Peter Roget (1779-1869)

As will no doubt have been worked out from his name (and from those clues separated by slashes), Dr Roget is responsible for the Thesaurus.  It was first published in 1852, and has never been out of print, with its original total of 15,000 words growing in number with each reprinting.  The book has arguably cemented the English language’s reputation for being the richest tongue in the world, in terms of its vocabulary count.  It has also proved useful for students of English who may need a little help when expressing themselves in school assignments.  My best friend at university’s tip ‘Use a thesaurus – it’s great fun’ was at best a mixed help for me in my last few weeks of study, when I was typing out cover letters for jobs.

Has Dr Roget’s invention always, though, been such a beneficial one?  The question is increasingly worth asking in a world where the abuse of the English language is becoming more, not less, of a problem, and particularly in the field of politics and public affairs.  George Orwell, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”, highlighted the dangers of political language and the potential for its abuse, saying that it was…

…designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind… political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

George Orwell (1903-50)
George Orwell (1903-50)


Orwell’s concern for the integrity of his native tongue was something that he carried over in his final novel “1984”.  In the novel the world in 1984 is divided up into the three super-states of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, with Britain having becoming the Oceanian province of Airstrip One.  In this world the Party, presided over by the shadowy dictator Big Brother, have wrung so much meaning out of language that now things mean practically the opposite of what they sound like.  Thus, a forced-labour camp has become a “joycamp”, an incinerator for getting rid of politically embarrassing material is known as a “memory hole”, and government departments like that concerned with war have names like the Ministry of Peace.  To underline how much language abuse it has got away with, the Party unblushingly parades its slogans as ‘War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength.’

George Orwell died in 1950, but the concerns over how our rulers and representatives abuse political language did not go with him. One need only think about the loaded nature of recently coined terms like “anti-social behaviour”, “collateral damage”, “austerity”, “public-service reform”, and “acceptable level of violence” to realise that the concerns (and abuse) are very much alive and kicking.

People in Northern Ireland are well used to having to contend with politically loaded language. As the Battle of the Bogside was raging in August 1969, the Republic’s then Taoiseach Jack Lynch made some spectacularly ill-advised remarks in a televised Address to the Nation:

‘[T]he Irish Government can no longer stand by and see innocent people injured and perhaps worse.

Jack Lynch (1917-1999), pictured here in 1967
Jack Lynch (1917-1999), pictured here in 1967

Lynch was talking only about sending field hospitals to the Border, but his choice of words served only to raise Unionists’ blood pressure at a dangerous time. Whatever the origins of, and culpability for, the outbreak of violence in 1969, as far as the majority of Unionists in Northern Ireland were concerned they were facing a republican uprising, and the last thing they needed to hear was the Republic’s head of government publicly fretting about “standing by”. Lynch, or at the very least his speechwriter, should have known that.

Another classic example of poorly chosen words was proffered in March 1972 by Ulster Vanguard leader Bill Craig. Against a contemporary backdrop of bombings and shootings by the IRA and other paramilitary groups, Craig told a party rally in Ormeau Park:

We must build up the dossiers on the men and women who are a menace to this country, because one day, ladies and gentlemen, if the politicians fail, it may be our job to liquidate the enemy.

Interviewed for a documentary by English journalist Peter Taylor in 1999, Craig was unrepentant about his choice of words:

I did mean to liquidate the enemy… not in terms of personalities, but in terms of organisation…I didn’t expect [the words] to be interpreted in any other way than the normal meaning.

However Craig meant his words to sound, many young loyalists certainly interpreted the words to mean more than just organisation, taking their interpretation to the point of joining paramilitary groups and killing Catholics, even if most of the Catholic victims in question had nothing to do with republicanism.

It is not just Unionists who are accused of abusing political language. Sinn Fein have also faced the accusation. In a heated TV debate in January 2013, at the height of the protests in Belfast over the City Council’s vote the previous month to restrict the flying of the Union Flag from City Hall, the loyalist activist Jamie Bryson made some interesting observations on the theme of political language:

Constantly our people are told about this Peace Process.  Process, by its definition, has a start and an end.  Nobody has ever told us: what’s the end of this Peace Process?

Addressing Sinn Fein’s North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly directly, Bryson continued:

You use all these nice words like Equality and Shared Future.  It sounds fantastic across the world, but those are weapons of war that you use against our community.

At the very least, Sinn Fein have more work to do in persuading loyalists of their sincerity in creating a society of equals.

Of course, it would be patently absurd to blame political language, its abuse and potential for abuse entirely (or at all) on Dr Roget. He himself had only the best of intentions for his invention. Quite apart from the book, he also came up with its rather pretentious title of “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases” (the word “Thesaurus” comes from the Greek word for “treasure”). The work of drawing up the first-ever dictionary of English synonyms took him over forty years, and seems to have been a form of therapy for him: Roget battled with depression for much of his life, and suffered numerous tragedies, including the death of his father and wife while young.

Nearly a century and a half after Roget’s death, and over sixty years after that of Orwell, the problem of language abuse remains. In his book “Unspeak: Words are Weapons”, the author Steven Poole argues that everyone has a responsibility to challenge our rulers and the media about the words they use:

Words have consequences in the world. To adopt the phrase “ethnic cleansing” is to be complicit in mass killing. To talk blandly of “abuse” turns a blind eye to the beating to death of blameless taxi drivers.