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Italians often get confused by sensible and sensitive. If I tell them

He's a sensible boy; he studies hard, saves his money, and plans ahead.

They are quite bewildered. To them, sensible is indistinguishable from the Italian "sensibile" which means impressionable, easily moved to tears and sentimental.
È un ragazzo sensibile = He's a sensitive boy/young man

Online Etymology Dictionary states that originally, sensible meant

late 14c., "capable of sensation or feeling;" also "capable of being sensed or felt, perceptible to the senses," hence "easily understood; logical, reasonable," from Late Latin sensibilis "having feeling, perceptible by the senses," from sensus, past participle of sentire "perceive, feel"

Then sometime in the early 15th century, the meaning of sensible evolved to:

"having good sense, capable of reasoning, discerning, clever," mid-15c. Of clothes, shoes, etc., "practical rather than fashionable" it is attested from 1855.

Meanwhile the word, sensitive with its more modern interpretation (as far as I could tell) has origins in the early 19th century

sensitive(adj) Meaning "easily affected" (with reference to mental feelings) first recorded 1816; meaning "having intense physical sensation" is from 1849.
Etymonline

Why did this shift occur? The original Latin term, sensibilis, and consequently sensible, could have continued meaning “capable of sensation and feeling” and “to perceive” i.e., to achieve understanding of; apprehend. What happened in the 15th century that wise, common sense and sound judgement replaced the original meaning of sensible?

I am bored of telling Italian students and friends that sensible is a false friend. Is there a better explanation?
Or am I to suppose that it is William Shakespeare's fault (or merit) again?!

  • 5
    It has that meaning as well. In fact, it means several things. You either have to get more sensible friends or else be more sensible of the fact that some people just won't change. I wouldn't feel the least bit shy about telling English-speaking people that Italian bello and English bellow, though they sound alike, mean very different things. – Robusto Dec 14 '13 at 22:17
  • Yes, but when they read bellow and hear it in a conversation (very rarely, it's not a common verb) there is little risk of confusion. Unlike "She's sensible and smart". I tend to associate sensitive with having feelings, whereas sensible is something which is pragmatic and practical. – Mari-Lou A Dec 14 '13 at 22:22
  • Relevant: english.stackexchange.com/q/57854/8019 – TimLymington Dec 14 '13 at 22:22
  • @TimLymington I had read that post before forming my question. It's quite different, but nevertheless I do like that question and the top answer. – Mari-Lou A Dec 14 '13 at 22:24
  • The adjective sensible goes with two nouns: sense and sensibility. I think the question is how the noun sense acquired its meaning of reasonable. – Peter Shor Dec 14 '13 at 22:42
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The English meaning of the word sensible seems to stem from a medieval theory of mind.

The word sensible is an adjective which in the 19th century had two different meanings, related to the two different nouns sense and sensibility:

sense: 3 [mass noun] a sane and realistic attitude to situations and problems

sensibility: 1 the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity

The adjective sensible connected with the noun sensibility had essentially the same meaning as the Italian word sensibile; this meaning is now nearly obsolete.

These two meanings both stem from the original meaning of the noun sense:

sense: 1 a faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus; one of the faculties of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch

How did sense evolve from meaning 1 to also encompass meaning 3? This seems to be related to the medieval theory of mind. From the OED, we have (with a first citation from 1398)

common sense 1. An ‘internal’ sense which was regarded as the common bond or centre of the five senses, in which the various impressions received were reduced to the unity of a common consciousness. Obs.

One of the citations they give is from Richard Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (ca. 1630). This book lists five outward senses: sight, hearing, smelling, taste, and touching; and three inner senses: common sense, phantasie or imagination, and memory. It gives the following fairly clear explanation of common sense:

Inner Senses are three in number, so called because they are within the brain-pan, as common sense, phantasie, memory. Their objects are not only things present, but they perceive the sensible species of things to come, past, absent, such as were before in the sense. This common sense is the judge or moderator of the rest, by whom we discern all differences of objects; for by mine eye I do not know that I see, or by mine ear that I hear, but by my common sense, who judgeth of sounds and colours: they are but the organs to bring the species to be censured; so that all their objects are his, and all their offices are his.

This original meaning of common sense has now evolved to what we call sense, and gave rise to current meaning of sensible.

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