Sensible, Smart & Clever
Posted: 23 January 2009 04:28 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Stoner post but bear with me.

My German friend was briefly puzzled earlier when i replied ‘sensible!’ to his comment that he had his beers for the night ready next to him. He told me that ‘senisbel’ means sensitive where he’s from. So i described how ‘sense’ can be used for ‘sense of touch’, ‘sense of smell’ and also for ‘common sense’ and ‘sense you were born with (haven’t got)’.

At this stage i guess i could rationalise the spectrum of meaning: after all, the brain is just a big bundle of nerves isn’t it? I couldn’t help but feel this rationalisation would work better if the word had been around several hundred million years.

We then got on to ‘sensible shoes’ (as opposed to ‘silly shoes’?) and i mentioned the idea of ‘smart shoes’. Now, i’ve always thought that the evolution of ‘smart’ went something like this:

cutting / sharp pain (like being cut) -> cutting wit, cutting jokes -> misinterpreted to mean ‘clever’ (in the modern sense of ‘clever)’. With some tailoring technique thrown in - the cut of a suit = a measure of how smart it is.

So you can see i’m already confused, but when i start to look into ‘clever’ i find i’m sensing an evolutionary web instead of the neat branching tree that i hoped for.

gib

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Posted: 23 January 2009 08:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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He told me that ‘senisbel’ [sic] means sensitive where he’s from. So i described how ‘sense’ can be used for ‘sense of touch’, ‘sense of smell’ and also for ‘common sense’ and ‘sense you were born with (haven’t got)’.

It’s hard to parse this nest out, but generally, the “sense of smell” meaning of the word “sense” takes an entirely different set of words in German (Gefuhl, Sinn several others depending on the idiom).  However, in their earliest roots, the English “sense” and the German “Sinn” have a common PIE root.  See etymonline. The word is also related to our verb send.

To the main point of your post, sensibel in German is a late arrival there (17th century) from the same Latin root (via French) that our version of the word comes from, but with a slightly different meaning--sensitive versus “makes sense” or “reasonable” which in German would be (sinnvoll sein or to be full of sense.  Actually the English “sensible” can also be used to mean “sensitive” as in “sensible to pain” or even “the most sensible regions of the spirit” suggested at MWO (see link below).  The sense of “reasonable” is first recorded around 1530 and “sensible shoes (or clothes)” is attested from 1855. 

There’s no easy way to make sense of the cluster of words you are asking about partly because each of the senses of the word “sense” that you list are somewhat variant from each other.  Common sense, for example is an idiom which in German is der Menschenverstand which could literally mean the understanding of the people.

If you checked an English dictionary, you would find that the word “sense” has several definitions some of which are not directly related to one another.  Here is MWO for noun and MWO for the transitive verb.

Check out smart at etymonline as well.

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Posted: 24 January 2009 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Just to add that sensible in French also means “sensitive” rather than “practical and reasonable”.

But even where there is no gross difference in meaning between cognate words in languages, the nuances can vary a good deal. My father. who speaks Italian fluently, was gratified when an Italian hotelier expressed incredulity when he said that he was English, saying ”ma lei e troppo intelligente!” - but intelligente in Italian signifies “quick on the uptake” rather than “intelligent”.

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Posted: 24 January 2009 05:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Thanks for the replies.

Sorry about the state of that post. I was a bit over-excited at the time.

gib

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Posted: 24 January 2009 11:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Sensible formerly also had the meaning of “sensitive” in English, though it’s now obsolete for practical purposes.  The title of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility seems redundant to modern ears: a person of sense is sensible.  But the meaning at the time was more like “sense and sensitivity”.

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Posted: 24 January 2009 12:17 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Sorry about the state of that post. I was a bit over-excited at the time.

No apologies necessary.  A great set of questions for your first post!  Welcome.
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Posted: 24 January 2009 04:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Oecolampadius - 24 January 2009 12:17 PM

No apologies necessary.  A great set of questions for your first post!  Welcome.

Cheers. I’m still struggling with the why ‘smart’ was used to decribe neat clothes.

Syntinen Laulu - 24 January 2009 05:38 AM

...intelligente in Italian signifies “quick on the uptake” rather than “intelligent”.

I’m not sure i can see the difference there.

Dr. Techie - 24 January 2009 11:16 AM

Sensible formerly also had the meaning of “sensitive” in English, though it’s now obsolete for practical purposes.  The title of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility seems redundant to modern ears: a person of sense is sensible.  But the meaning at the time was more like “sense and sensitivity”.

I really like that. I learned something there.

gib

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Posted: 25 January 2009 03:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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...intelligente in Italian signifies “quick on the uptake” rather than “intelligent”. I’m not sure i can see the difference there.

That intelligence in English implies penetration and steadiness of understanding; intelligenzia only signifies quickness. It would be oxymoronic to say in English “X isn’t intelligent, but his judgement is sound”, but you can be intelligente without having common sense, wisdom or discernment.

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Posted: 25 January 2009 07:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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FTR: the Dutch cognate (etymologically related word) of English ‘smart’ is ‘smart’ and (still) means ‘pain, sorrow’. As you indicated, this appears the oldest meaning. It might interest your German friend to point out that the German cognate is ‘Schmerz’. So in a way, ‘smart shoes’ might simply be one size too small.

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Posted: 26 January 2009 02:40 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Note that in some contexts in English, sensible is still used to mean “able to be sensed”.

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Posted: 26 January 2009 11:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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jointgib - 24 January 2009 04:24 PM

Cheers. I’m still struggling with the why ‘smart’ was used to decribe neat clothes.

Clothes make the man.

It isn’t much of a leap to go from the man to his clothes. In fact, other than construction words like “woven” or “button down” isn’t it the norm to describe clothing in terms that could just as easily be used to describe people? Tough, hard working, casual, stylish, etc.

I think it is interesting that in OE, “sharp” was one of the synonyms for smart and we see that word also used to describe clothing.

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Posted: 27 January 2009 12:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Could someone with an OED let me know if the evolution of meaning was from “smart = clever” to “smart = well turned out” or the other way around. Being a Rightpondian, I had always assumed the latter.

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Posted: 27 January 2009 07:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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The latter sense is far later (1789 MRS. PIOZZI Journ. France II. 204 “We observed..how the town was become neater, the ordinary people smarter").

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Posted: 28 January 2009 01:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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happydog - 26 January 2009 11:09 PM

I think it is interesting that in OE, “sharp” was one of the synonyms for smart and we see that word also used to describe clothing.

It still is today, isn’t it?  Sayings like “He’s as sharp as a tack” or “You’re so sharp, be careful you don’t cut yourself” spring to mind.  Then there’s “dull”, which still means the opposite of “sharp” in both senses in Leftpondia, although tools are “blunt” over here.

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Posted: 28 January 2009 05:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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When I was learning German in the early 80s, my text had the phrase describing an early 70’s Mercedes 280SL. It was “Ein schnittiges Auto”. The translation given was “A sharp car”. It was funny even then as an understandable, but odd use of the word. Couldn’t deny the truth of the statement. It was indeed ein schnitteges Auto. It’s my lottery car.

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