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.

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