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"Makes sense" seems to have two meanings: that someone understands something or that something is logically sound. How did this phrase enter the english language? What are its origins?

It looks like this phrase dates back to the early 1800's. I clicked through some of the books that came up in my Ngram utility search but I could not find anything indicating what the origin of the phrase is. enter image description here

Interesting trend pointed out by RaceYouAnytime: the positive "makes sense" diverges with the negative "does not make sense" in the mid 1940s enter image description here

  • This is potentially a very good question but custom here requires your reporting on at least preliminary research. Google books' Ngram utility would be one place to start--maybe try entering "make sense" (as more general than "makes sense"). – Brian Donovan Jun 15 '17 at 21:33
  • @BrianDonovan Thanks, I want to follow this stack's customs. I posted the results of some preliminary research. I am quite new to the field of etymology, so it's not much. – kilojoules Jun 15 '17 at 22:04
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    There seem to be two variants -- an intransitive X make sense (to P) construction, with some concept X as subject. Calculus makes sense to me now, and a transitive P make sense (out) of X -- I can't make sense out of what he said. As noted, both constructions are more common in the negative. – John Lawler Jun 15 '17 at 22:09
  • Looking at the Ngram hits, I get the impression that "makes sense" and "does not make sense" got their start ca 1807 among folks working on translations of the Bible and classics. This was likely a tight-knit group for its time, and probably they circulated letters and newsletters around, so an idiom such as "make sense" could get started fairly easily. And in that domain the idiom, uh, makes sense, as it refers to achieving a "sensible" translation in the face of some difficulty. – Hot Licks Jun 15 '17 at 22:43
  • I'll note that there are a few "hits" for "makes sense" in the 1700s, but they do not appear to be using the words idiomatically. – Hot Licks Jun 15 '17 at 22:52
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To add a little bit to Josh's answer, OED provides three definitions for to make sense. While the earliest attested uses date back to 1554 (albeit without the word make), it seems that the most common forms people use contemporarily when they say "makes sense" are from definitions (b) and (c) below.

(a) With written or spoken language as subject: to be coherent or intelligible. Formerly also in the same sense: †to have (also) give) sense. In later use also with a person as subject: to speak in a manner that is coherent or intelligible.

The earliest attested use of this definition is from 1554, but it does not use the construction "make sense."

1554 J. Gwynneth Manifeste Detection of Notable Falshed f. 27 This worde..muste nedes bee referred to somewhat, before or after, or els it can haue no sence.

We find "make" used with "sense" attested in 1721.

1721 A. Malcolm Treat. Musick xiv. 538 This, to make any Sense, must signify that [etc.].


(b) In extended use: to be intelligible or comprehensible, esp. in the context of pre-existing knowledge or expectations. Frequently in negative constructions, and with non-referential it as subject.

Here we have a definition that seems to me to more directly apply to the way "makes sense" is used frequently today. It fits well with the ngram provided in the question. The earliest attested use of this definition is from 1905.

1905 E. M. Forster Where Angels fear to Tread i. 20 ‘I don't understand,’ she said; ‘it doesn't make sense.’... ‘The meaning is quite clear,—Lilia is engaged to be married.’


(c) To be sensible, advisable, or viable, esp. as course of action. Frequently with it as subject and followed by to. Also followed by as

Unlike definition (b), this one is not usually used in negative constructions. Earliest cited uses are from the 1930's.

1931 Time 15 June 24/2 He would never undertake the ‘Christian’ daily unless it made sense as a newspaper.

1937 Pop. Sci. Monthly Oct. 117/1 It makes sense to have half the length ground straight.


To some extent, NGram searches provide support for the notion that "to make sense" was mostly prevalent in negative constructions before its affirmative use. This chart should be taken only as a supplement to the descriptions offered by OED and other sources, because the terms being compared are not of identical construction. Still, the rapid split between "does not make sense" and "makes sense" in the span of a decade fits with the notion that to make sense was more prevalent earlier in a negated form. The timing of the divergence seems to follow with only slight delay the attested dates OED provides as a distinction between definition (b) (often negated) and definition (c) (not necessarily negated).

(Note that NGram treats "doesn't make sense" as equal to "does not make sense.)

enter image description here

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    "It makes sense to me" colloquially seems to imply something between "I understand what is being asserted" and "I accept the assertion as true". So if someone puts forward an argument (say) that climate change is caused by human activity, responding "that makes sense to me" says that you have followed the reasoning and can't immediately see any flaws in it but you're not yet totally convinced. It might well be followed by a "but": "That makes sense to me, but how do you account for XYZ?" – Michael Kay Jun 16 '17 at 10:07
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The expression make sense dates back to the 17th century:

  • Be reasonable, wise, or practical, as in It makes sense to find out first how many will attend the conference. This term employs sense in the meaning of "what is reasonable," a usage dating from 1600. In Britain it is also put as stand to sense.

  • Be understandable. This usage, first recorded in 1686, is often used in a negative context, as in This explanation doesn't make sense.

(AHD)

Note that "sense":

  • Meaning "that which is wise" is from c. 1600.

(Etymonline)

  • So "sense" means "that which is wise?" Is that old english, latin, or a something else? – kilojoules Jun 15 '17 at 22:06
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    @kilojoules: it ultimately comes from the medieval theory of the senses: there were five external senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell; and five internal senses: common sense, imagination, logic, estimation, and memory. – Peter Shor Jun 15 '17 at 22:31
  • I wonder how cognitive scientists would label those today. Common sense is probly adaptability, and estimation is subdivided into various modalities. Memory is its own industry, and there's lots more categories. Pity they stopped at 5. – John Lawler Jun 16 '17 at 1:03

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