Words: Sensible

Share
Related Topics
AS HE sped down the M4's bus lane last week past a tailback of frustrated motorists, many of them no doubt floating voters, Tony Blair had time to wonder whether the bus lane was such a fine idea after all. But it had seemed right at the time; "sensible" was the word he had used about it a fortnight earlier, a good steady word. One was reminded of the old electioneering slogan "You know it makes sense". We expect our politicians to be sensible, whatever else they are.

It was this meaning of sensible, as applied to persons, that prompted Dr Johnson to say that it was used only in low conversation.

His ruling sounds unkinder now than it was then. Low talk, to us, is like the dodgy talk we get from the more desperate kind of comedian who resorts to it as a substitute for wit, as often found in the lateish evening on BBC Radio 4. For Dr Johnson, however, it was probably more a matter of social class than of bad taste: only ignorant people used the word in that way, he was saying. Or he may have meant little more than that it was all right for the coffee house but not for anyone who wanted to write good prose.

Whichever he meant, it seems surprising now. But then the usual definition of sensible was quite different in the 18th century. A sensible thing was something that could be perceived by one of the five senses - palpable is the word most people would use nowadays, from the Latin for to touch (and also to stroke, or flatter, but we never took that meaning).

And a sensible person was someone whose senses were acute enough to do the perceiving. It all came from sentire, which was the Latin for "to feel" and which also gave us sentiment. Sensible men or women were sensitive, as one would say today, to the feelings of others. They responded to the beauties of nature and wept at the deaths of friends.

Johnson would not have made his ruling 50 years later. By that time sense, having been about people's receptivity both to feelings and to ideas, had narrowed itself down and was now mostly about intellectual perceptions, and it had begun to take sensible with it. But sensibility stayed where it was, refusing to go along with the changes that had come over its near relations. So readers of novels were able to appreciate a clever little title such as Sense and Sensibility, which would not have made much sense to Samuel Johnson.

Though the older meaning of sensible is still to be found in modern discourse, I can't see it surviving much longer. Recipients of knighthoods and the like can say they are sensible of the honour without sounding too pompous, and Mr Blair was evidently sensible of the feelings of the electorate on the M4.

But I don't imagine that this was how he put it to John Prescott afterwards. When it comes to the distinction, often made by literary critics such as Dr Johnson, between the high style and the low, the People's Premier prefers the low.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Theresa May  

Democracy and the police: a system in crisis

Nigel Morris
 

Mary Beard has taught us all a lesson in how to deal with online bullies

Louise Scodie
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone