Sensation is one of those words that spend most of their time behaving well and staying in their baskets until someone comes and prods them and they leap out snarling and barking. A sensation is usually only a feeling, which is what sensus means in Latin, and a sensate person is merely someone who has their senses, or wits as they were once called, about them (sensible means much the same). Dr Johnson might talk about "a man of sensation" where today we would talk about a man of feeling. But sometimes the word can be made to mean violent feeling, which is when people begin to get excited. It must have been this sort of sensation that the Royal Academy was after when it tried to revive its fortunes with an exhibition of modern art belonging to Charles Saatchi. One can see the trendier academicians round the table. What shall they call it? "Got it!" says one. "Sensation!" (Cries of Like it, like it.) And so they did.
Some might call that pretty cheap. But complaints about "sensation-mongers" have been heard ever since popular newspapers began. "The sensationals" was already an American name for them 100 years ago. And you can tell they're still keen on this role when you see how often the word appears in our own tabloid press. This past month the Mirror has been telling us how Margaret Cook "sensationally" claimed her husband had been having affairs and how Gordon Brown was "sensationally" told to toe the line or risk the sack, while Britain's oldest mum was "sensationally" dumped by the father of her love child. We live in sensational times.
Nicholas BagnallReuse content