A Dictionary of Sensibility: Introduction

In the eighteenth century, a linguistic big bang spun off a new etymological universe: the language of sensibility. "Sensibility" and its related terms either appeared for the first time, took on meanings unique to the period, or gained enriched connotations. The denotations of these new linguistic planets have proved as elusive as the rings of Saturn, however. This hypertext offers a new approach to understanding the language of sensibility, one that accounts for the multiple possibilities of meaning. Rather than attempting hard-line definitions, this project offers the tools for recognizing the multivalent connotations of such sensibilious words as "virtue," "sense," and "benevolence." Our hypertext groups excerpts from major words of sensibility according to 24 primary words; we imagine the sensibilious reader exploring these passages to glean a new understanding of the vocabulary and the literature of the period.

R.F. Brissenden, tracing the evolution of the "family" of words related to sensibility and sentimentality, notes the extraordinary breadth and variety of meanings attributed to these terms in the eighteenth century--a linguistic as well as philosophic explosion. "Especially during this period they were charged with great and often vague emotive power--moral, sexual, political, often semi-religious. They represented or could be made to represent a constellation of highly significant general ideas and feelings; while at the same time they could be used with precision, delicacy and scientific neutrality. They operated across the broadest spectrum of thought and discourse: the same word in one context could be coldly empirical while in another it could radiate the most enthusiastic idealism. At the highest level they played a part, sometimes an essential one, in the languages of physiology, psychology, philosophy and the emerging social sciences. ... At the lowest level ... part of what Steven Marcus, in his study of sexual literature in the Victorian age, has characterised as the 'fantasies' of a period, that 'mass of unargued, unexamined and largely unconscios assumptions'" on which a society's world view bases itself (Brissenden 20-1; Marcus 1).

To explore the "fantasies" of the Age of Sensibility, click on to the "term list" below. From there you will have access to the 24 words of sensibility. The source bibliography provides our primary texts; the critical bibliography, our secondary sources. Clicking on a term in the term list will take you to an introduction to the word and a list of excerpts. Each excerpt provides links to other terms used in or implied by the passage. On the excerpt pages, primary material is in bold; our commentary, in roman typeface.

This hypertext is only the beginning of the Dictionary of Sensibility: We would like our World Wide Web readers to send in their favorite passages of sensibility, to be considered for incorporation. Please access "submissions" for details on how you can expand the Dictionary of Sensibility.

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography