Thesaurus of English words and phrases classified and arranged so as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition
It is now nearly fifty years since I first projected a system of verbal classification similar to that on which the present work is founded. Conceiving that such a compilation might help to supply my own deficiencies, I had, in the year 1805, completed a classed catalogue of words on a small scale, but on the same principle, and nearly in the safe form, as the Thesaurus now published. I had often, during that long interval, found this little collection, scanty and imperfect as it was, of much use to me in literary composition, and often contemplated its extension and improvement; but a sense of the magnitude of the task, amid a multitude of other avocations, deterred me from the attempt.
Since my retirement from the duties of Secretary of the Royal Society, however, finding myself possessed of more leisure and believing that a repertory of which I had myself experienced the advantage might, when amplified, prove useful to others, I. resolved to embark on an undertaking which, for the last, three or four years, has given me incessant occupation, and has, indeed, imposed upon me an amount of labour very much greater than I had anticipated.
Notwithstanding all the pains I have bestowed on its execution, I am fully aware of its numerous deficiencies and imperfections, and of its falling far short of the degree of excellence that might be attained. But, in a Work of this nature, where perfection is placed at so great a distance, I have thought it best to limit my ambition to that moderate share of merit which it may claim in its present form; trusting to the indulgence of those for whose benefit it is intended, and to the candour of critics, who, while they find it easy to detect faults, can at the same time duly appreciate difficulties.
The result of the author's labours was embodied in a copy of the Thesaurus, in which the margins and spaces about the letterpress were closely covered with written words and phrases, without any very precise indication of the places in the text where additions or alterations were intended to be made. On a careful examination of these addenda, I came to the conclusion that, in order to introduce them with advantage, it would be necessary to make some slight changes; without, however, interfering at all with the framework of the book, and but little with the details of its system.
In this proceeding, my course has been mainly determined by the following considerations. Any attempt at a philosophical arrangement, under categories, of the words of our language, must reveal the fact that it is impossible to separate and circumscribe the several groups by absolutely distinct boundary lines.
There will always be found to exist, between the words in one group and those in another, a variety of mutual affinities, corresponding with similar relations among the ideas expressed. Many words, originally used to express simple conceptions, are found to be capable, with perhaps a very slight modification of meaning, of being applied in many varied associations. Repetitions of these words have a tendency to spread themselves, as it were, in transitional films, around the clusters of expressions into which we may have attempted to marshal our vocabulary.
Connecting links, thus formed, induce an approach between the categories; and danger arises that the out- lines of our classification may, by their means, become confused and eventually merged. Owing to the employment, in innumerable in- stances, of one and the same word in a variety of different bearings and relations, the fabric of our language has become a texture woven into one by the interlacing of countless branches, springing from separate systems; and these are further complicated by cross relations among themselves.
Were we to disengage these interwoven ramifications, and seek to confine every word to its main or original import, we should find that some secondary meaning has become so firmly associated with many words and phrases, that to sever the alliance would be to deprive our language of the richness due to an infinity of natural adaptations. Were we, on the other hand, to attempt to include, in each category of the Tliesaurus, every word and phrase which could by any possibility be appropriately used in relation to the leading idea for which that category was designed, we should impair, if not destroy, the whole use and value of the book.
For, in the endeavour to enrich our treasury of expression, we might easily allow ourselves to be led imperceptibly onward by the natural association of one word with another, and to add word after word, until group after group would successively be absorbed under some single heading, and the fundamental divisions of the system are effaced. The presentation to the eye, at one view, of too large a medley of allied expressions would have a tendency to dis- tract the mind of the inquirer, and he would feel the want of further classification.
The small cluster of nearly synonymous words, which had formed the nucleus of a category, would be lost in a sea of phrases and it would become difficult to recognize those which were peculiarly adapted to express the leading ideas. Hence it is necessary for the compiler to steer a mean course between the dangers of being too concise on the one hand, and too diffuse on the other.
These considerations were material in dealing with the new and multitudinous store of words and phrases which the author had ac- cumulated. Many of these were altogether new to the Thesaurus. Many were merely repetitions in new places of words already included in its pages. With reference to cases similar to the latter, the author had declared it to have been a general rule with him " to place words and phrases which appertain more especially to one head, also under other heads to which they have a relation, " whenever it appeared to him " that this repetition would suit the convenience of the inquirer and spare him the trouble of turning to other parts of the work." But, with the now increased mass of words, it became a question, in many cases, whether such repetition would still prove convenient. Where categories might by that course be unduly swollen, or where they might, by reason of their being separated from each other by subtle distinctions or faint lines of demarcation, be thereby too nearly' assimilated, I thought it would often be better to confine words of the kind referred to to their primary headings. The necessity of keeping the book within reasonable dimensions had also to be borne in mind.
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