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A Thesaurist Leaves, Exits

Robert L. Chapman has left language lovers a rich legacy through his delightful editing of Roget's.

March 03, 2002

Regrettably, unfortunately, lamentably and mournfully, Robert L. Chapman is deceased, demised, departed and dead at 81. The son, boy and male offspring of a West Virginia typewriter mechanic, Chapman once drove trucks, then studied poetry and medieval literature before editing the timeworn, antiquated, irreplaceable Roget's International Thesaurus.

He transformed, altered and caused the transmutation of the stuffy, dull, ill-ventilated compendium of synonyms and antonyms into a hip, cool, with-it collection of words and associations, not only piquing the intellects of language lovers but saving the behinds, fannys and GPAs of countless late-night collegiate essay writers (see also Indolent, Slothful, Procrastinating). With their new shoes, underwear and a Webster's, college-bound juveniles have long packed a Roget's, hoping to sound more educated while getting there.

Before (Slang) cashing in his chips and giving up the ghost, Chapman quietly shaped the way we speak and think of words and idioms as tools to effectively communicate to each other the multi-toned richness of the human experience (see Feeling, Knowledge). You know how people in 19th century photographs posed as if nailed to boards and never smiled? Today's photographers encourage relaxed and open. Same difference for thesaurus editors.

A doctor and Londoner despite his French name, Peter M. Roget produced in 1852 more than a mere alphabetical listing of similar and dissimilar words. He also created categories such as Kindness, Benevolence to suggest enlightening linguistic links likely to be missed by word seekers. The goateed Chapman was engagingly subversive in his academically rooted but pragmatic, populist approach to chronicling and improving how English speakers speak and write. His computers also tracked word usage to update and expand categories and words for new times, inserting AIDS, Scud, hacker, fax, ecosystem, even new dog breeds and slang and modern phobias (i.e. Fear of Flying, not prominent in 1850). Roget's perusers find themselves wandering the distinctive wordways of Chapman's lexicon, encountering new meanings, associations and phrasings through serendipity, an increasingly rare modern commodity and a delicious entry that needs no synonym. As things eventuated, credit goes to Robert Chapman, who has no synonym.

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