Sense and Sensibility

I was enjoying some French conversation last night, on Bastille Day, when someone tried to think of the French translation for sensible. This is a tricky one because there is a French word sensibilité, but it’s a common false friend for French speakers, as it actually means sensitive in English.

That might seem odd to you, because sensible and sensitive are quite different in meaning in English. However, if we take a little trip into the past, we can see that the difference wasn’t always so marked.

Sensible first appears late in the 14th century in English, meaning capable of sensation or feeling, with sensitive also appearing around the same time, with basically the same meaning. Sensible though, could also be used to refer to something easily perceived or understood by the senses, which thus led to it gaining the meaning of logical or reasonable. The meaning of sensible thus shifted away from the senses in a physical or emotional sense, becoming more related to the idea of common sense, as we use it today.

We can still see some traces of the old meaning of sensible in English. The word sensibility, for example, meaning capable of responding strongly to complex or aesthetic influences, was used often in the Romantic period. The title of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility deliberately plays with the two meanings of the words. It refers to the common sense of Elinor, and the sensiblity of her sensitive sister Marianne.

So, after all that, what is the French for sensible? Well, there isn’t one, really. There are some words, like raissonable (reasonable), and sage (wise) which pretty much do the same, but don’t really have the exact connotations of sensible in English. That can be frustrating when you’re trying to translate what you want to say, but it’s a useful reminder that languages don’t work on a direct-translation, this-word-means-that-word basis. And that’s OK, because there are still plenty of ways to refer to someone being sensible in French, just without using a specific adjective.

And if you think about it, you could probably manage without using the word sensible in English too if you had to. It’s useful, certainly, but we’d probably still do OK if it had never developed the specific meaning it did.

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