Release notes: Making sense of sense

By Ellie Stedall, Senior Assistant Editor

Sense was published in the 1912 fascicle of the first edition of the OED (OED1). That means that it’s over a hundred years since an editor first grappled with the word, and sought to present the story of its development in a clear and coherent form.

As an editor with the job of revising this entry in 2016, for OED3, the challenge was not only to bring that story up to date, but also to engage carefully with the first edition: to recognise and retain what was done well, and to identify where the assumptions or prejudices of the period – or simply a lack of textual evidence – may have misled my predecessor. This proved to be particularly crucial with the word sense, which encodes and reflects to a high degree the shifting attitudes and persuasions of various historical periods. Perhaps this is not surprising, since it denotes so many aspects of the mind and body. In fact it is word of deceptive simplicity – part of our core vocabulary and yet used to refer to some of our most profound physiological and epistemological experiences. This fact, combined with the sheer variety of senses into which sense has proliferated, made it a particularly intriguing editorial challenge.

The first editor of sense, working in the early twentieth century, identified three major thematic branches into which the word could be divided, all dating from the sixteenth century, and developing contemporaneously over the next five hundred years. These are the headings which he gave to each of those strands in the first edition, and the date of the earliest quotation evidence available for each one:

Faculty of sensation or perception (1526)

Actual perception or feeling (a1586)

Meaning, signification (1530)

When I revised the entry, I decided to retain these three branches, which provide a coherent framework for understanding sense’s many senses. I did however rename them, and – in response to new quotation evidence – reorder them. As a result, the branch structure of OED3, although closely derived from OED1, has a very different appearance:

OED1’s branch 3 became OED3’s branch 1: Senses relating to meaning, intelligibility or coherence (1382)

OED1’s branch 1 became OED3’s branch 2: Senses relating to the faculties of the mind, brain, or body (1382)

OED1’s branch 2 became OED3’s branch 3: That which is felt or perceived by the body or mind (1483)

Such significant reordering of branches entailed, of course, the shuffling of individual senses. In OED1, the first sense of the first branch was the one which refers to the five senses:

[1a] Each of the special faculties, connected with a bodily organ, by which man and other animal perceive external objects and changes in the condition of their own bodies. Usually reckoned as five–sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.

But in OED3, the first sense of the first branch refers not to the body, but to language:

1a The meaning of a more or less extended sequence of spoken or written words (as a sentence, passage, book, etc.). Also: any of the various meanings of such a sequence of words.

While the OED1 entry gives the impression that sense was first used to denote the faculties of the body, and later came to be identified with meaning and signification (a body to brain trajectory), OED3 presents a different story. The branch relating to meaning, intelligibility, and coherence is (as far as currently available evidence allows us to know) coeval with the branch relating to faculties of the mind, brain, or body. I have placed it first on the basis that it has more early (that is, fourteenth and fifteenth century) evidence. What is clear is that the development of sense was driven as much by the pressing matter of interpreting language – specifically, in earliest use, the language of the Bible – as by the discourse surrounding the faculties of the mind, brain, and body, and the various states and levels of perception and consciousness of which humans are capable. In this regard it is interesting to note that many of the common phrases involving sense which we use today (for example to take something in a certain sense, to make sense of) were first used with reference to the meaning of written or spoken language, and have gradually come to be used more generally.

Branches 2 and 3 of OED3 form a fascinating contradictory/complementary pair. Branch 2 covers faculties of the mind, brain, or body, while branch 3 covers that which is felt or perceived by the body or mind: in other words, things with which we sense and things we sense. So for example dress sense – the faculty of knowing how to dress – falls into branch 2 (sense 19b), whereas a sense of honesty – an awareness and appreciation of the value of honesty – falls into branch 3 (sense 21b). Of course day to day we use these various senses unthinkingly and unerringly, but when it came to drawing up a dictionary entry, and sifting through the heaps of accumulated evidence, I was amazed by just how large a conceptual terrain is covered by this single word.

One of the quirks of sense was the fact this enormous terrain had been very finely divided by its first editor. It was sometimes difficult to see where the exact distinction between senses lay, or where a particular quotation should be placed. For example the gradation of consciousness between these two senses is a fine one:

14a The combined faculties of sensation and perception, including but not limited to the five senses, which are rendered inert or inactive when their possessor is asleep or otherwise unconscious; the faculties of sensation and perception in a state of wakefulness of alertness.

17b The thinking or reasoning faculties of the human mind in a normal or undisturbed state; reason, sanity, wits.

To which sense does a drunken person belong?

1720 E. Lloyd, tr. J. Chardin Trav. Persia I xii. 118, I can no longer bear, that thou shouldst here preserve thy Senses, while we are all drunk.

I have placed this quotation at 17b, but the sense comes with the proviso: ‘Sometimes not easily distinguishable from sense 14a.’

The distinction between the following senses is an even more complex matter:

12a Originally: any of the faculties of sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch; any of the five senses. […]  In later uses more generally: any of the faculties by which external or internal stimuli are perceived, involving the transmission of nerve impulses from specialized neurons (receptors) to the brain.

15a In pl. The faculties of physical sensation, esp. the five senses, considered as the means of exciting or satisfying sexual or sensual desire. Also occasionally in sing.: a faculty of this kind.

Here it is arguable that the two definitions refer to exactly the same faculties – the faculties of sensation. It is the primacy of sexual behaviour to human culture, and the moral censure which certain behaviour has attracted in the past, which has caused these faculties in a state of sexual arousal to be viewed as qualitatively distinct. This presents an interesting problem for a dictionary editor, and one that is faced in other entries too: senses that essentially describe ‘the same thing’ may be justified because of the diverse ways that thing is viewed. In this case, should I have dismissed sense 15a as the product of a bygone social outlook, and incorporated it into sense 12a? Or should I have regarded it as distinct part of the word’s history, and retained it? I decided to do the latter, whilst also adding a note to say that in the course of the 20th century, as social norms around sexual behaviour have significantly shifted (in some parts of the world at least) this sense has largely become a contextual use of sense 12a.

Those are a few aspects of this large word. In his 1960 work Studies in Words C. S. Lewis noted that sentire, the Latin verb from which sense derives, ‘from the beginning […] has a tendency to bifurcation.’ Sense has undoubtedly delivered on its Latinate promise, and continued to bifurcate. It has taken root both widely and deeply in our language, and enters naturally into our discourse about words, books, meaning, reason, wisdom, awareness, sensitivity, intelligence, perception, intuition, feeling, sex, sensuality, and consciousness. It is probably true to say that every adult English speaker from the late fourteenth century onwards has used, in speech or writing, this unassuming polysemous monosyllable, and so those roots are the consequence of daily, demotic use. Whatever form this word has taken, it is because people have had something to say, and needed sense to say it.