Lexical Investigations: Sentimental

Sentimental, a word intrinsically tied to Romanticism, entered English in the mid-eighteenth century, about 50 years before the Romantic era was in full swing. Scholars officially date the Romantic period from around 1800 to 1850, with the publication of William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798 marking the palpable beginning of the era.

In 1800, Wordsworth published a new edition of Lyrical Ballads, this time including a preface that contains what poet and literary critic Mary Ruefle describes as “the ultimate definition of poetry for the Romantics.” She laments: “the everlasting pity is, his definition is always quoted out of context.” The seminal out-of-context Wordsworthian definition: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” However, Ruefle reminds readers that this sentence ends with a comma, not a period, and following that comma Wordsworth warns of the dangers of sentimentality unbound by reason: “and though this be true,” he continues, “poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man, who being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, has also thought long and deeply.” Wordsworth implies here that this “spontaneous overflow” is, in fact, tempered by in-depth analysis.

Taking a step back to when sentimental entered English in the mid-1700s, we see that from the very start, it has been a word loaded with contradictions, prone to misinterpretation. In a 1749 letter, Dorothy Bradshaigh lightheartedly asks English writer and printer Samuel Richardson for his opinion on the word. “What…is the meaning of the word sentimental, so much in vogue amongst the polite, both in town and country?” Describing her observed use of the ubiquitous term she states, “Everything clever and agreeable is comprehended in that word, but I am convinced a wrong interpretation is given, because it is impossible everything clever and agreeable can be so common as this word.” She then gives examples of its usage, saying she frequently hears phrases like “a sentimental man,” “a sentimental party,” and “a sentimental walk.”

In this letter we see that for Dorothy Bradshaigh (and likely for her more skeptical contemporaries), sentimental, which had such a positive original sense, lost the loftiness of its meaning through oversaturation. While perhaps this opinion was less common in 1749, within only a century, the sense of the word had made a complete shift to the pejorative sense. In The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens, first published as a serial in 1840 and 1841, he celebrates a character for his realness: “…in justice to poor Kit…he was by no means of a sentimental turn, and perhaps had never heard that adjective in all his life.” Being sentimental—and even knowing the term sentimental—is seen by Dickens as decidedly negative.

While the mawkish way Dickens used sentimental still holds today, on some occasions over its time in English, the term has been employed in a flattering sense. In the song “Sentimental Journey,” first recorded by Doris Day in 1945, she sings about nostalgia: “Gonna take a sentimental journey / to renew old memories.” Later in the song she says she’s going home, back to her roots, and she wonders, “Why did I decide to roam?” Day performs this number with a sincerity that Dickens would have found disgusting. However, her audience found her evocation of past memories so enchanting that it was covered by numerous artists, including Ella Fitzgerald and Ringo Starr. Also in 1945, the song “Sentimental Reasons,” made famous by Nat King Cole, was published. Many illustrious musicians—from Django Reinhardt to Sam Cooke to Rod Stewart—have contributed their own renditions of that sentimental tune.

In this particular case, the oversaturation of sentimental upon it first entering English over 250 years ago has greatly impacted the way modern English speakers perceive the term. Currently it can carry both positive and negative connections, giving today’s English speakers the opportunity to pick and chose the sense they use depending on the context.

A motley combination of Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Germanic dialects, the English language (more or less as we know it) coalesced between the 9th and 13th centuries. Since then, it has continued to import and borrow words and expressions from around the world, and the meanings have mutated. (Awesome and awful once meant nearly the same thing.) Some specimens in the English vocabulary have followed unusually circuitous routes to their place in the contemporary lexicon, and this series, Lexical Investigations, unpacks those words hiding in our midst.

Read our previous post in this series about the word desiderata.


  1. A Concerned Citizen -  September 15, 2013 - 2:09 pm

    This was very interesting to read. I was sorely disappointed at the comments. For one thing, if you don’t have something to say about the word sentimental, why are you commenting? For another thing, why must you assume a website about words is pushing a “gay agenda” on you? Did you consider the fact that since the word is sentimental, the picture can be interpreted as two friends or lovers being sentimental? Who cares if the hands are two men’s, two women’s, one or the other, or something else entirely? The picture is supposed to describe the word sentimental and nothing else. Why do people have to jump at even the tiniest possibility to troll and/or complain about something entirely off-topic of what the page is presenting? I find it ridiculous that somebody looking for the word sentimental has to endure a catastrophic comment section just to find the few intelligent remarks actually pertaining to the topic of the page. I’m honestly shocked, flabbergasted really, at this page. I got so irritated that I just had to speak my mind.

  2. MB -  March 31, 2013 - 10:16 pm

    SENTIMENT… sentiment is a chemical defect found in the losing side.

  3. Julie -  March 31, 2013 - 8:21 pm

    Interesting article! I took a class in college studying poets of the Romantic period. I recall writing my final paper on the subject of Sentimentality that appears throughout the poetry of that era. It’s interesting to see how much impact a word can have throughout time and the different meanings it can take.

  4. V -  March 31, 2013 - 4:58 pm

    The two in the picture could be any gender. Hell, they could be silicone hands. Plus, if you look up the definition of sympathy it doesn’t say anything about gender or sexual orientation.

  5. Sophie -  March 31, 2013 - 4:58 pm

    To: E

    Perhaps….I thought so too. Though it could still be a very thin man; but we’ll never know for sure will we? Let’s just leave that as it is.

    I think the rest of the commenters were more concerned with the fact that David’ perception of the picture as two men triggered accusations with homophobic overtones. Basically, it was his homophobia they were attacking, not his correct/ incorrect interpretation of the genders depicted. Just saying. (*shrugs)

  6. Webranger -  March 31, 2013 - 8:33 am

    David’s basic premise is correct in that the “gay agenda” in our societies is pushed aggressively in all sorts of inappropriate ways and places, but on this occasion he is mistaken, the hands are most certainly those of a male and a female.
    More interesting is why that photo was chosen for that article. It seems to me that it was chosen by an editor who had not read the text.

  7. ilcorago -  March 30, 2013 - 8:34 pm

    The homophobic agenda sees what it wants to see.

  8. Cherry Blosoom -  March 30, 2013 - 7:47 pm

    That’s intersting

  9. Cherry Blosoom -  March 30, 2013 - 7:46 pm


  10. oddislag -  March 30, 2013 - 11:25 am

    ^ Sounds about right, actually.

  11. Tammy -  March 30, 2013 - 1:56 am

    Seriously people?? Arguing on a dictionary site is pretty sad. If you don’t have anything constructive to say why comment at all?

    Also, if your going to ask me why I bothered to say what I did I’ll answer that for you now. I like to read comments because I like to find out other people’s intelligent thoughts and/or knowledgeable information on the matter at hand. Then there are people like you, who waste my time with your drivel.

  12. Joe -  March 30, 2013 - 12:24 am

    It sounds like sentimental is a word that means “freely thoughtful, having feelings for, or being able to relate,” to the given person, event, place, or idea. Otherwise, one would disregard the importance of them.

  13. ohreally -  March 29, 2013 - 9:36 am

    “you have no legal right to complain about what they write”.

    Yes he has. It’s called freedom of speech. He has this right even though you (and I) don’t like what’s he’s saying.

  14. Daniel Igbru -  March 29, 2013 - 6:12 am

    Sure, my eyes are not blind. I can see clearly that these are men’s hands and not women. What beats my imagination is that why do we see black, and pretend it is white. Anyway let;s forget about sodomy and enjoy this piece of historical information about the use and meaning of sentimentality.

  15. Andrew -  March 29, 2013 - 1:54 am

    Hey Dave… (i.e. the first poster), while I do agree thoroughly that they shouldn’t even attempt to push the gay rights act (No, I am not gay), I do have to agree with the poster before me in his assement that the hand on the right, from the person on the left, is a considerable amount more finer than the other. And thus, I am of a the decision that it is a females hand. In either case, regardless of the insinuated sexual preference, or the typo’s, dictionary.com is a reputable website that I can’t even begin to disparage.

  16. L. L. Bean -  March 28, 2013 - 9:40 pm

    David is right, this article is clearly pushing an agenda. It could be the gay agenda or the agenda of man hand-touching OR it could be an agenda promoting heterosexual women with mannish hands, like “E” says. Either way I don’t like it. I’m feeling gay already. I’ll just take my “values” somewhere they won’t be harassed, maybe somewhere 100 years ago.

  17. C -  March 28, 2013 - 7:12 pm

    I actually don’t care (nor do I make assumptions; in fact if there was an image I did not see it because I block most external resources by default) if it’s two men, two women, a man and a woman or even two freaks of nature. Honestly though, David brings any offence to himself. People into politically correct are similar: they find something to be offended by. Well, good. Be offended. Typical mentality of people who have their so-called values hurt to actually say offensive things. He is offended so he says offensive things to feel better. It’s actually pathetic and is the same mentality of bullies. There is one funny part though: the fact no one made him come here yet he has a problem with what is posted here (whether he sees it or not is irrelevant to my original post if you understand all of what I was getting at). His actions are then much like a Jew (or indeed, a homosexual – ha!) going to a Nazi rally (hiding the fact they are a Jew [or gay]) and then complaining.

    It’s a fairly common thing I guess. I just like to be very blunt and state the obvious. Too often I have had to point out that something I said or wrote was rhetorical.

  18. Ren -  March 28, 2013 - 5:10 pm

    C.obvious is right. If you see a post containing bigotry, especially when it involves roping in controversial topics into unrelated matters, it’s probably just a troll. They’ll die if you stop feeding them.

  19. bruce -  March 28, 2013 - 4:05 pm

    I agree, what’s with this homosexual idea you try to impose on us?
    Couldn’t you put a man and a woman?
    Come on already, now I have to check if the Thesaurus won’t tramp my values before letting my son search for a word?

  20. a -  March 28, 2013 - 1:39 pm

    E’s observation is on the mark. Each hand belongs to the opposite gender! One hand is definitely male; the other is obviously female. I am astounded and woefully saddened at such narrow and simple-minded distraction over a silly photograph!

  21. ToDavid -  March 28, 2013 - 12:48 pm

    To David, the obviously blind bigot, since your rant didn’t make you sound foolish enough, I thought I’d point out that the hands in the picture are quite different in size and shape. As in thats a picture of a man and woman, not two men. The dress she appears to be wearing is a good sign of that as well.

  22. E -  March 27, 2013 - 9:59 pm

    Dave? And others? Why are you assuming it is two men? I believe the person on the left, whose hand is on the right, is female. The slacks look like women’s slacks, the blouse is tucked, and the hand is finer.

  23. Consulting Detective -  March 27, 2013 - 5:09 pm

    Sentiment is a chemical defect found on the losing side.

  24. Hebeestie Wallopman -  March 27, 2013 - 1:22 pm

    Oh David, how fragile your world must be where two men cannot even touch without being accused of homosexuality.

    Take a trip through south east asia, it’ll blow your itty bitty mind, men walk the street hand in hand simply because they are friends.

    Not every touch is sexual, maybe you need to come to grips with that before you next step out into polite society.

  25. D -  March 27, 2013 - 12:31 pm

    Yeah, Dave. Better be careful about speaking your mind and all, and being offended at having their agenda thrown in your face every time you turn around… someone superior will have to put you in your place.

  26. C.obvious -  March 27, 2013 - 12:20 pm

    People, please turn on your troll sensors.

    You’ll find they get a positive result from the first poster.

  27. Novelist -  March 27, 2013 - 10:55 am

    In the first paragraph it reads, ‘about 50 years before the Romanic era was in full swing’. Shouldn’t it say ‘the Romantic era’?

  28. C -  March 27, 2013 - 10:21 am

    David, why the bigotry? How is that a sign of being gay? The irony is you’re responding to an article that is essentially relating to lexicology and you seem to (conveniently) forget the other definition of gay.

    Why am I not surprised you mentioning Merriam Webster? Oh, right – because it was the lunatic Noah Webster who decided to change English because the words were “too complicated” and is ultimately responsible for Americanised English.

    Here’s a better idea: if you don’t like the website why not go elsewhere rather than spend time writing about your hateful “values” (and no, I am not gay). And frankly unless you PAY for Dictionary.com services, their servers, their network connection or any thing else helping them then you have no legal right to complain about what they write (they didn’t break any laws nor any contracts).

  29. el_chubasco -  March 27, 2013 - 10:14 am

    Tagline for David Sutherland – Prejudiced human who implies through misguided grammar use that he is the only user on thesaurus.com.

    Put the foil hat back on and return to your mother’s basement. The world is coming for you.

  30. Ole TBoy -  March 27, 2013 - 8:31 am

    ……“and through this be true,” he continues,….

    Shouldn’t this be “though” as in “although” not “through”?

    A wise English prof friend said it was bad to write
    sentimentally, but OK to write “with sentiment.”

  31. SENTIMENTAL | BLOGCHI@mayopia.com -  March 27, 2013 - 6:45 am

    [...] ‘Sentimental’ punditry: — No other Obtuse Business but our own. — Looking back and maybe moving forward or Sideways, — Rhetorically running in place. — So much packed into defining definition, — How do we get outta this space? — Tradition — Short and Sweet, — Not to be ever complete, — When the Sentimental Old Drunk wore a younger man’s clothes. ->>L.T.Rhyme This entry was posted in DICTCOMHOTWORD, L.T.Rhyme and tagged LT, LTRhyme, the HOT WORD on March 27, 2013 by LTRhyme. [...]

  32. ed -  March 27, 2013 - 5:52 am

    You used “through” for “though” in paragraph 2 and “though” for “through” in paragraph 4.

    “and through this be true,”

    “lost the loftiness of its meaning though oversaturation.”

    Just saying.

  33. Hunter -  March 27, 2013 - 5:32 am

    Feeling sentimental?

  34. Greg -  March 27, 2013 - 5:02 am

    Thanks for the information (history) on the term
    sentimental .

  35. David Sutherland -  March 26, 2013 - 12:47 pm

    Two men touching fingers for an article on “sentimental”? Why is there a need to push the gay agenda with your website? Really?

    I’ve got a tag line for your site, “Thesaurus.com – harrassing our user’s values one search at a time. (Or at least until they discover m-w.com.)”


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