I am writing a novel with a narrator, a Victorian doctor, writing in the year 1854. Would he have used the expression "common sense" in the same way that British writers use it today?

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    According to etymonline.com/…, it was first used in 1726. I see no reason why it can't be used in 1854, but I'm not sure if Victorians used it. – Hank Jan 18 '17 at 16:34
  • To the etymological field day below, add the brief thought that someone schooled in the 18th or 19th centuries might have said sensibility. – Rob_Ster Jan 18 '17 at 18:30
  • I think this is a very interesting question (hence my lengthy answer below), and I don't think that the cursory treatment of "common sense" by Etymology Online does justice to English speakers' (and writers') complex and subtle usage of the term across the past four centuries. – Sven Yargs Jan 18 '17 at 22:44

Yes, the expression is quite old. According to Etmonline:

14c., originally the power of uniting mentally the impressions conveyed by the five physical senses, thus "ordinary understanding, without which one is foolish or insane" (Latin sensus communis, Greek koine aisthesis); meaning "good sense" is from 1726.

The most well known historical example is Thomas Paine's Common Sense (1776), which is probably the source of the initial spike in its usage:

As you can see, it was used around the time you're writing about. Some examples written in the field of medicine (and alternative medicine):

You can get fairly good results (including some of the ones I've included) for a broader time range using a search like this.


With regard to the distinction that Etymology Online draws between "the power of uniting mentally the impressions conveyed by the five physical senses, thus 'ordinary understanding, without which one is foolish or insane'" (from the 14th century) and "good sense" (from 1726), it seems to me that the division in actual usage may have been much less clear-cut than that authority suggests.

Consider this instance from John Martiall, A Replie to M. Calfhills Blasphemovs Answer Made Against the Treatise of the Crosse [by William Bradshaw] (1566):

Iudge by yower owne argume[n]t: yow woulde haue it thus. Diuells are disco[m]fited by that which Moyses handes prefigured:but Moyses handes prefigured the signe of the crosse, ergo by the signe of the crosse diuells are discomfited. Is not this all one in effecte? Haue yow not the same matter, and the same sense, that I had in mine? And haue altered nothing, but added a terme, and left out certayne wordes, which I added to make it more playne, VVhich doth not infringe the substance and grounde of the argume[n]t, but the forme and fashio[n] onelye? And wil you laughe with indignation at an argument all one in effecte with yower owne, because it is not in mode and figure? Dothe not yower Logicke teache yow, that the argument that lacketh mode and figure is not to be reproued as euill, nor the former of it, voyde of witt and co[m]mon sense, if it be reducible to any mode and figure? Haue you not hearde of manye such in Logicke? And if yow haue forgotte this, maye we not laugh (not as yow doe with indignation (for that may welbe called a dogges laughter) but with good reason at yower malepertnesse in finding faute with that, which to no man that hathe wit, or common sense, seemeth reprehensible?


But that the crosse or crucifixe is, or hath ben taken, for such [an idol], and as vnlaufull to be worshipped, as that was, you should first haue proued, and the[n] triu[m]phed: but because you knewe your weaknes in that behalf, you vse a common sophistication called, Petitio principij, and like a foolish sophister you presuppose, that to be proued, which you were neuer able to proue, nor shalbe as long as scriptures, councells, fathers, reason, and common sense shalbe of any authoritie with men.

Each of these instances involves a pairing of "common sense" with another cognitive faculty—in the first two instances "wit" and in the third "reason." It is certainly possible to read "common sense" in all three instances as meaning "ordinary understanding." But if not for the assertion by multiple authorities that "common sense" as "good sense" didn't arise until more than 150 years later, I could well imagine that the author here meant "common sense" in its modern sense, which Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) gives as follows:

common sense n (1726) : sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts

To the extent that "common sense" as the Eleventh Collegiate defines it stands in opposition to the formal logic of "foolish sophisters," it would work very neatly in each of the three instances above. Likewise with Thomas Nash, "The Four Letters [of Gabriel Harvey] Confuted" (1592):

What Authors dost thou alleadge in thy booke? not two but any grammer Scholler might have alleadgd.

There is not three kernels of more than common learning in all thy Foure Letters. Common learning! not common sense in some places.

Here the contrast of "common learning" with "common sense" again reads very well (and indeed more forcefully and effectually) when we interpret "common sense" as having its modern meaning rather than the meaning "ordinary understanding."

And again, from Reginald Scott, The Discouerie of Witchcraft:

The concluion therefore shall be this, whatsoeuer heeretofore hath gone for currant, touching all these fallible arts, whereof hitherto I haue written in ample sort, be now counted counterfet, and therefore not to be allowed no not by common sense, much lesse by reason, which should lift such cloked and pretended practises, turning them out of their rags and patched clowts, that they may appeere discouered, and shew themselues in their nakednesse, Which will be the ende of euerie secret intent, priuie purpose, hidden practise, and close deuise, haue they neuer such shrods and shelters for the time : ...

My point in raising these instances is not to try to prove that "common sense" was used to mean "good sense" (that is, "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts") in the 1500s, but to show that the early, Etymology Online–endorsed meaning "ordinary understanding" and the much later meaning "good sense" are not nearly so far apart and easy to separate as one might suppose from the line that Etymonline draws at 1726. It seems to me that "ordinary understanding" and "good sense" shade into one another readily and subtly, especially when the "judgment" aspect common to both is central to the context in which the term appears.


The upshot of all this is that "common sense" seems to have rapidly evolved beyond describing the mechanical or physiological operation implicit in "the power of uniting mentally the impressions conveyed by the five physical senses" to mean, generically, "ordinary understanding"—and that "ordinary understanding" and ordinary "good sense" are so closely allied that English speakers may have understood "common sense" to encompass both senses long before 1726.

In dealing with individual cases, it can be hard to tell whether the focus of "common sense" is on sound basic understanding or on sound practical judgment. I certainly wouldn't want the job of having to prove that the author of every instance of "common sense" published between 1566 and 1726 had in mind "ordinary understanding" and not "sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts."

Consider Thomas Gordon's use of the term in "An Apology" (1719):

The Danger of the Church comes from divers Causes, the principal of which I shall reckon up.

And first, common Sense and Sobriety are great enemies of the Church. While folks are sober and rational, they can see about them, and want that large Competency of Blindness which so eminently qualifies a Man for a good Churchman. So long as they are destitute of that Title to Orthodoxy, they will be attending to the Means of their own interest and Safety, than which no greater Rubs can be thrown in the Priesthood's Way.


The Lord Syntax is past Fourty, and has all the Rules of Grammar by Heart; but notwithstanding this great Accomplishment, the Cowl is not yet taken off his Face, and he is still a Minor. But being a Babe in common Sense, he is consequently a resolute High Church-man.

These passages seem to equate "common Sense" with practical judgment in opposition to book learning and strict religious orthodoxy.

And ten years before Gordon's treatise, the Earl of Shaftesbury published "An Essay on the Freedom of Wit and Humour" (1709), which discusses "common sense" at length and from multiple perspectives but in particular emphasizes the term's association with the "Opinion and Judgment" of "the Generality or any considerable part of Mankind"—a description that emphasizes both the "shared" (neither "combined" nor "everyday," but tending strongly toward the latter) aspect of common and the "judgment" (not "mode of perception") aspect of sense.

When it comes to retracing the evolving meaning of "common sense," we're on a very slippery slope.

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