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.



35 thoughts on “My feelings about sentimentality

  1. Those charts are great.

    Do you ever find that, with certain words, every time you see or hear the word, you’re reminded of the first time you encountered it? “Avuncular” is one of those words for me (in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”, Hamlet’s uncle is described as “not exactly avuncular”).

  2. I had a professor in grad school who eschewed “avuncular” in favor of “uncle-ish,” the only person I have ever heard use such a term: “Let me give you first-years a bit of uncle-ish advice” he would say. (Could he have spelled it “unclish”?)
    Anyway, year-struck, I May Have To Kill You. I thought I knew every site at which a person with a brain could while away hours and days, but you have shown me a new one!

    • Uncle-ish has a ticklish sound to me. My Uncle Jim was like that actually. He also could make coins appear out of thin air.

      Don’t you love the Ngram viewer? It’s like a stock market for words. Buy 100 shares of Verdant now!! The price is falling and when it goes back up, you’ll be rich!!

  3. While in college, a retired professor used the word “arcane”. I nodded as though I knew the meaning of the word, although I had never heard it used. He then asked me point blank if I knew what it meant, and I tried punting, and guessed that it meant the same as archaic. I have never forgotten that word or its meaning.

    Learning new words is fun. Using old words to bring them back to life is even more fun. Using arcane words….priceless.

    • I bet that word is burned in your memory. It’s a rare person who will admit they don’t know the meaning of a word, but there are over half a million words (depending on how you count), so how in the world could we know all of them?

  4. incorrigible was a word that I learned once, and never forgot

    I am extremely pleased to see that it is suffering a pitiful decline on Google’s Ngram Viewer, so I thank you abundantly for your contribution to my unmistakably improved version of today

  5. riatarded

    There is one word that I am truly sick of, proverbial. Oops I guess I let the proverbial cat out of the bag. Bleh!

    Somehow everyone I know seems to be using it a lot lately and it’s getting on my nerves. Also, why is everyone going to Turkey all of a sudden?

    • I checked out “proverbial” on the Ngram viewer, which shows it usage in books. The word was very popular in the 1800s, but started a steady decline from the mid-1800s until around the 1990s. It’s starting to climb back up, so you may be hearing and seeing it more in print.

      I have a friend who loves to go to Turkey. He raves about the people, the food, the beautiful places to go, and the prices.

  6. Yippee! Now I know I’m as Pious as all-get-out! In that case, I will unabashedly flaunt my silliness, knowing I shan’t be condemned for it. I can feel my halo practically bursting into flame as we speak.

  7. As you know, I think a lot about words and the way they work. To read something as fine as this that breaks down a word that I’ve been using a ton lately— “sentimental” — means a great deal to me.

    I adore your discussion of words and their etymological evolution— I was aware of the history of the word sentimental and that has been part of my consideration to start using this word with (I hope) some muscularity.

    My brain uses words in layers— I contemplate the popular usage against the etymological history, the grammatically sound against the pretty vernacular, and on and on.

    It thrills me to think that you have taken this consideration one step further into a meta-discussion of the idea behind usage itself.

    In other words, I think you are unambiguously brilliant. Thank you for being you, Yearstricken!

      • I love the image of a reform school for wayward words! In my training, there was a lot of talk about being wary of “big” words— love, peace, et. al. because they are so flimsy if not used well. There was also a lot of bold talk about “risking sentimentality” and avoiding the saccharine.

        I carried these rules around in me for years. Now, I’m trying to learn how to break them well. Sometimes I succeed; sometimes I fail. I only hope that in the case of the latter that I fail spectacularly. Does that make sense?

        • I like the idea of failing spectacularly. I can’t please people with my life or my writing (I’ve tried), so now I want to live and write the best way I know how, even if my critics think it is the worst way possible. 🙂

        • You have critics? Say it ain’t so!

          Ah, critics. People who don’t know how to add any constructive suggestions don’t interest me. Blankety-blank the critics!

          Your final summation is exactly, EXACTLY what I believe right now. As the younguns say: Haters gonna hate.

  8. Talk to me...I'm your Mother

    Oh, my! As I walk through my mundane days, I will need to keep my electronics nearby so that I can visit this new site. Then I will know whether my vocabulary is arcane or whether I fall into the trap of thinking only in words that have been upwardly mobile but are now worse for the wear.

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