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What classification scheme exists for grouping words by their meaning, e.g., "words that describe food," "emotion words," and "types of people"?

My concern is pragmatic; grouping words with similar functions can aid in word choice and usage. In other words, I am looking for a grouping method more general than a thesaurus but more specific than the parts of speech. This may be an impossible task given the number of words in existence; thus, I am limiting the categories to "commonly" used words, with the hope that there exists a practical grouping scheme.

  • To what purpose would you like to use this scheme, if one should exist? Your answer to this question might make your question easier to answer. – rhetorician Dec 7 '13 at 0:07
  • To expand my vocabulary and improve my diction. Unfortunately, vocabulary lists, like those for the SAT or GRE, tend to be organized randomly, or at best, group words with the same prefixes and roots. – SEL Dec 7 '13 at 0:26
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Interesting question. Being a natural-born teacher, I've always loved classificatory schemes, which could also be called compartmentalizing, pigeonholing, partitioning, creating rubrics, and probably a dozen other words I can't think of readily.

I suppose you could start with any of the following and see where they take you:

  • People, places, things
  • Who, what, when, where, how, why
  • The five senses: touch, taste, see, hear, smell, feel (and intuition, a "sixth" sense)
  • Spirit, soul, body
  • Intellect, emotion, will (or volition)
  • People, things (or animate and inanimate)
  • Physical, spiritual, mental
  • Things that move; people who act
  • The dramatic pentad: act, scene, agent, agency, purpose (and perhaps attitude)
  • Time and space
  • The social sciences and the "hard" sciences
  • Past, present, future
  • Methods or types of measurement (e.g., time; weight; appearance, such as color and shape; dimensions, both literal and figurative)
  • Past, present, future
  • Planets, stars, galaxies, universe
  • Heaven and hell
  • World religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and more)
  • East versus West
  • Political systems and forms of government (e.g., democracy, theocracy, plutocracy, socialism, communism, parliamentarianism, monarchy, tyranny, meritocracy, bureaucracy, and more)
  • Languages
  • Aspects of culture, such as morals, rules, mores, folkways, customs, rites, socialization, family structure and kinship, taboos, and more)
  • Parts of speech: nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, interjections, prepositions, infinitives
  • Parts of sentences: subject, predicate, direct- and indirect object, predicate adjective, predicate nominative, prepositional phrase, adverbial phrase, infinitive phrase, gerundial (?) phrase, and more
  • Communication: verbal, nonverbal, written, spoken
  • Symbol systems: language, spoken and written; mathematics; music; periodic table of the elements; molecular configuration in written form; and more
  • Animate and inanimate
  • Temperaments, such as melancholy, choleric, sanguine, and phlegmatic
  • Nationalities
  • People groups, or groupings of people (e.g., immediate family, extended family, dyad, triad, gang, sub-culture, tribe, nation, civilization, aboriginals, natives, foreigners, friends, societies, organizations, companies, partnerships, married couples, cousins, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, grandparents, senior citizens, adolescents, young adults, babies, retirees, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, skilled workers, unskilled workers, manual laborers, students, teachers, faculty, administrators, leaders, followers, politicians, and more)
  • Six kingdoms: animal, plant, protists, fungi, bacteria, archaebacteria
  • Phylum, class, order, family, genus, species
  • Modes of transportation
  • Precipitation: rain, snow, sleet, hail
  • Clouds: cumulus, stratus, nimbus, nimbostratus, cumulonimbus, and more
  • Genres of virtually anything (e.g., books, disciplines, films, music, fine art, food, and more)
  • Poisons
  • Edible and inedible
  • Water, ice, steam
  • Fungibles
  • Tangibles and intangibles
  • Real and imaginary
  • Solid, liquid, gas
  • Molecules, atoms, electrons, protons, quarks, and more
  • Crimes: misdemeanors, felonies, summary offenses
  • Laws: religious, dietary, common laws, moral laws, edicts, ordinances, administrative
  • Branches of government: judicial, legislative, executive
  • Strata of society
  • Economic systems
  • Producers and consumers, manufacturers and sellers, sellers and buyers, wholesalers and retailers, sellers and brokers and buyers, and more
  • Visible, invisible; corporeal, incorporeal
  • Male, female, and androgynous
  • Sexual acts, positions, perversions, preferences, and more
  • Musical instruments (strings, winds, percussion; violins, violas, cellos, double-basses; brass; woodwinds; and more)
  • Levels of intelligence
  • Kinds of intelligence
  • The ten systems of the human body (e.g., circulatory/cardiovascular, dermal/integumentary, nervous, digestive, glandular, muscular, skeletal, reproductive, pulmonary, immune/lymphatic)
  • The food pyramid, and all the various forms of food in it: simple and complex carbohydrates (bread, pasta, cereal, potatoes), fruits and vegetables, meat and fish protein (meat and legumes), grains and nuts, and more
  • Edible, dietary proteins such as fish, fowl, beef, pork, lamb

People down through the centuries have compiled similar lists, and other people have re-arranged those lists in various ways and for various purposes. Of course, all of creation is in a sense unitary and interconnected. In other words, there is diversity, but there is also unity. As far as intelligent and animate life is concerned, specifically living human beings, there is only one race of people: the human race.

I hope I've given you an idea of how far-reaching your question is, and how one needs to delimit one's classifications by narrowing the focus, as you have already done to some extent by insisting the categories be relatively simple. I wish you all the best in your efforts!

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It's a good idea to group words together that share a common theme.

If for example you have a list for food then you can divide that section according to fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy produce, fast-food etc. Furthermore, you might add:

  • idioms; eat out, dine out, eat in, eat up; have a bite...

  • typical expressions; takeaway, book a table, order a pizza...

  • countable and uncountable; eggs (C), spaghetti (U), food (U)...

  • collocations; (adjective) meal; delicious, heavy, light, lovely, lavish...

  • restaurant language; I'd like to order, I'll have; Can I reserve a table for two? etc...

The website: Words to use shows how you can catalogue food for example; cooking verbs, places to eat, food nouns etc. Make your lists as simple or as advanced according to your personal needs, and what is relevant to you. You don't have to stick with lists, you could also make mind maps, some find this visual representation more helpful, and more memorable.

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You can make a personalized list or lists on your own. For example, let's say that you want a list of words related to a general theme like "school". Take a basic Oxford dictionary, say the Canadian Oxford paperback (if you're Canadian), and carefully scan each entry word - stop and jot down any word related to "school" (ex: education, education system, learn, knowledge, information) - and systematically do this through from A-Z (it doesn't actually take that long, if your mind is built for such type of processing, filtering, etc…). I'm not saying to read the definitions, just to systematically scan through and make your custom list. It's up to you which words to jot down - for example, would the word "pencil" belong in your list? May I ask what you want your lists to be about?

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