As I understand it, there are several definitions of common, but I can't find any source that can highlight the etymology of the phrase.

The linked definitions are pretty rigorous, but a less strict, collapsed version might boil down to two relevant definitions:

  1. Common, as in shared amongst many in the group (a common goal)
  2. Common, as in general, appearing frequently; widespread (a common sight)
  3. "4c : just satisfying accustomed criteria : elementary " (The third definition is cited directly from M-W at coleopterist's suggestion)
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    Any particular reason why you've dismissed sense 4 of Webster's definition of common? Feb 18, 2013 at 18:44
  • Hmmm @coleopterist you may be right. I felt that 4a was covered under the first definition I provided, and 4b did not apply, but 4c looks very possible. That said, I'm still interested in the etymology and usage, so I'll add 4c to the question but leave it open. Thanks. Feb 18, 2013 at 18:50
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    The AHDEL defines common sense as a compound noun: Sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge. So do Collins and MW. Whilst this compound is transparent (easily broken down into constituents) (provided the correct sense of common is chosen!), one must be wary of demanding compositionality of fixed phrases. With a ship of the desert, is the ship powered by wind, steam, diesel, nuclear power? Feb 18, 2013 at 20:49
  • @Edwin: Ah, I did not know that. Thank you! Feb 20, 2013 at 14:46

1 Answer 1


a : widespread, general <common knowledge>
b : characterized by a lack of privilege or special status <common people>
c : just satisfying accustomed criteria : elementary <common decency>

It's covered by all of these. Common sense is supposed to be held by any reasonably mentally competent person; hence it is widespread, general, characterised by a lack of privilege or special status, and just satisfies the accustomed criteria of sense we expect everyone to reach.

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    I'm still not sold on 4b; I understand that common sense may well apply to all persons, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is characterized by that lack of privilege or special status. Feb 18, 2013 at 19:05
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    Which? Either it applies to all people, or it's not characterised by a lack of privilege or special status. Those are two ways of saying the same thing.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 18, 2013 at 19:53

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