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.



Sentimental swoons


Sentimentality is one of the nicest pejoratives you’ll ever meet. Maude, as I call her, cries easily, regularly rams into icebergs of emotions that sink her unsinkable optimism, sending her to the bottom of the ocean, but not before she can remember her happy childhood when every flower smelled of heaven and housed a butterfly, and house-trained robins fluttered above her head, leading her safely home where she lived happily ever after. She always manages to escape or resurrect from her watery grave and dry off her emotions, just in time to plan her next voyage across the sentimental seas. She calls every sailing vessel the Titanic, closes her eyes or changes the channel when the bad parts of life come on, and always thinks in pink. Even her sunglasses are rose-colored.


The Titanic (photo from Google)


However, Maude wasn’t always a pejorative. She was the darling of philosophy and literature in the 18th century; she looked more attractive when she was younger. During much of the Age of Enlightenment, Sentiment had to eat in the kitchen, while Reason sat at the formal dining table entertaining scientists, philosophers, and writers. After a while, Sentiment got tired of eating the leftovers and seduced the master of the house. When she sat down at the formal table and poured her wine, the conversation turned to discussions about subjectivity, introspection and her role in developing a moral sense. Sharing the table was one thing, but now Reason, long used to hunting alone, had to take Sentiment with him when he went out looking for moral truth. Reason always fancied himself the better shot.


Not-so-stern-looking Laurence Sterne, author of The Sentimental Journey, a sentimental novel. (Photo from Wikipedia)


Maude appeared in many of the novels of that era, using her beauty and brilliance to appeal to the reader’s emotions. After loosening the reader’s hand from the grip of cold logic and reason, she grabbed it and took the reader with her as she supped with sorrow, fought off lascivious brigands, and succumbed to both love and terror by swooning. Carried across the stormy seas of emotion, battered and bruised, now aloft on the crest of a wave, now almost drowning in its trough, the reader arrived at port, armed with a moral compass to find his or her way safely home. It was the only way Maude knew to teach the reader how to live nobly and morally. Ever the heroine, she drowned or died in story after story, the consequence of being too good for this world. She always showed up for work again the next day, ready to teach someone else.


Modern and post-modern readers who have grown up eating irony-fortified cereal for breakfast usually feel seasick after riding the high waves of sentimental novels from that period. Maude’s excesses led inevitably to parody and ridicule. She moved out of her manor, where she had entertained well-bred friends with refined sensibilities, and bought a house in town, next to the used bookstore. You have probably seen her shopping at Wal-Mart; the prices make her swoon.


People who write capital L literature want nothing to do with Maude. If she appears in your story or poem or essay, critics will label your writing sentimental, and they will use a sneering font on the label. As you know, labels written in sneering fonts are almost impossible to remove, so you can forget your dream of obscure fame in literary journals. Oh sure, there’s always the New York Times best-seller list, but do you really want to end up like Nicholas Sparks?


It’s probably too late to try to clear Maude’s name, no matter how much we may like her. I’ve noticed that she often uses her first and middle name these days: Maude Lynn*. She was never one to show restraint, any more than I do when it comes to puns. She chose a life of excess; that’s why a lot of people won’t make eye contact with her. I think she will always be popular, maybe not with the big L people, but with people who don’t capitalize their literature. I feel a certain amount of sympathy toward her, but I don’t like it when she glosses over the hard truths or pretends they aren’t there. I don’t like it when she takes the shortcut to happiness, to avoid the winos, addicts, and broken people who hang out at the bus station downtown.


I would like to live in a world with fewer problems; a world where every broken person is fixed. But as much as I would like to get to happiness faster, today I am not going to try to get there with Maude. I am going to go downtown and take the bus instead.


(*Note to reader: Gratuitous puns found on this blog are the result of an almost imaginary medical condition. Try not to judge.)