My feelings about sentimentality


Words are like celebrities. Some of them keep their signature style over the centuries; others turn into parodies of themselves. Public opinion is part of the reason. Words that socialize with people in power often become so popular that everyone knows and remembers their names. They use their connections to stay current. Other words go out of style because they only want to talk about the past.


Word handlers – writers, journalists, poets, and essayists – play a part as well. Too much promotion and people can grow sick of a word. Ask the word to perform in ways it’s not suited for and people will look for a different word, one that has honed that skill. Once the handlers start sending a word out on assignments just to make quick money, a word can grow jaded and start to say whatever the highest bidder offers, even if it is the opposite or near opposite its original meaning. Take a word like silly. Back in the 1200s, it meant “pious” or “blessed.” A century later, a silly person was “weak” or “pitiable.” By the 1570s, only fools and the feeble-minded were called silly.


Trace the root of “sentimental” back to the Latin sentire and you find the meaning “to feel.” The words “sense” and “sentient” come from the same Latin parentage. The first usage of the adjective “sentimental” in the 18th century referred to something characterized by feeling or sentiment. However, after the word began modifying ideas and novels filled with excessive emotions, people began to use it to mean too much emotion or sentiment. Hanging out with “maudlin” and “mawkish” ruined its reputation. Now its name is splashed across every dictionary tabloid in the land, so no one will ever believe it when it says, “But that’s not who I really am.”


Fortunately, even words with a bad reputation have cousins or other relatives that will stick up for them. Words are notorious breeders and there’s hardly one who doesn’t have at least one good apple in its thesaural barrel.


For some reason (call me tender-hearted), I started feeling sorry for “sentimental.” A few bad choices in life and suddenly you’re a pejorative. So I  looked up some of its first cousins and they introduced me to even more cousins who introduced to me some well-known, likable words that no one would be ashamed to be seen with in public. See the chart below.


Sentimental and its relatives


If you have time and would like to see how words come in and out of fashion, go to the Google Ngram Viewer and type in words. Please don’t go there is you have work to do. I didn’t, so I tried avuncular, of or about an uncle, and discovered that its growing popularity was unstoppable until just a few years ago.  However, verdant, green or covered in green growth, has started to fade, mowed down by the whims of fashion.