The other day I was in a meeting discussing the layout of an individualizable report. We had done a template with part real content and part filler content (lorem ipsum, that sort of thing). Our client contact person indicated that the next version needed to be a more completely real-world example. “Then we need to have all the data be sensical?” our designer asked.

Well. I have to say I was quite gruntled by this usage. I know some people might think sensical annoyingly peccable, but I find the usage in context perfectly ept, and, honestly, a ruly and kempt use of the language. It’s hardly the first backformation ever to be seen in the language. (Backformation is when you derive a word from a longer word that appears to be a suffixed version of it but is not. The noun mentee is made from a posited ment root backformed from mentor, for instance.)

Why not use sensible rather than sensical? Because it doesn’t mean the same thing. By that, I don’t just mean that we weren’t saying the data could be sensed. Sensible has several meanings, but the closest one to what we were talking about would have been ‘exhibiting good sense’. But we weren’t saying that the data had to exhibit good sense, just that it had to make sense. As in not be nonsensical. It had to be coherent, but since lorem ipsum text coheres, and sensical data that displayed numbers that might be unlikely in the real world might seem incoherent but would still be sensical, we didn’t necessarily want the word coherent.

Yes, yes, “entia non sunt multiplicanda” and all that (that’s Occam’s Razor: basically, it means “don’t add unncessary stuff” or “go with the simplest reasonable explanation”). Why add words wantonly. But this isn’t science, this is language, and language is not just a dry means of communication, it’s a fun game and we use it to express ourselves and add nuances. If our designer had said “Then we need to have all the data be sensible?” that would have implied a higher bar being set. And obviously it would be unnecessarily inelegant for her to say “Then we need to have all the data not be nonsensical?” She chose the word that worked. She said it, we understood it, there you have it.

But has sensical existed as a word already? Is it used in earnest today? How do we come to have a nonsensical without a sensical?

The answer to the first question is “Of course.” Any obvious backformation will show up fairly readily in usage, along with people asking “Is this a word?” The Oxford English Dictionary has citations for sensical from 1797 and 1839. (Nonsensical was in print by 1645.) However, the OED marks the word as obsolete and rare (it has the dreaded obelisk on the entry, gazing balefully like a basilisk – or rather hanging like the sword of Damocles over the headword).

And indeed sensical is not often used. It is used, however. Google it. Admittedly, you will find at the top of the results a number of wiki dictionary entries and several forum discussions of whether it’s a word. (I recommend this one on for some entertainment value.) Well, of course it’s a word. What a silly question. They use it, you understand it. No act of parliament or congress is required, nor any lexicographer’s imprimatur.

As to the etymology, the word nonsensical was formed by adding the suffix ical to the word nonsense (which of course was in turn formed from non and sense). There are a few other adjectives ending in ical that are formed from roots not ending in ic, such as canonical and chirurgical. By the time nonsensical came around, the sense of sensible meaning ‘making good sense’ was well established (and the older senses of ‘able to be sensed’ and ‘able to sense’ have been around since at least the 1300s), so that seemed generally to serve the turn – the finer distinction I make above was just not needed, I guess. And why not nonsensible? There actually is such a word, but it dates only to the 1800s and means ‘not available to the senses’. It happens that the more appropriate suffix for nonsense is ical, as in electrical, magical, musical, radical, and canonical.

I would be incomplete in my mission if I did not also point out that sensical ricochets off the back of the mouth rather than bouncing off the lips like sensible, lacks the many accreted flavours of sensible, and has nice echoes of all those ical words I mention above plus such as icicle, trickle, tickle, and such like. And it may carry that certain raciness or edginess that one gets from backforming an almost-unheard word from a common word, a thrill you may experience much more intensely from the curiously sensical little story “How I Met My Wife” by Jack Winter.


2 responses to “sensical

  1. I thought sensical was a word. I had just enough hesitation to double check and was surprised to find that it isn’t in fact perfectly standard…so I just changed to ‘logical’ instead to not be controversial. I like it though and it’s easy to understand and…well quite sensical.

    Personally, I hate it when people use words incorrectly or butcher/muddle the correct, existing version, but if the word they’re using is instead new, useful, and completely understandable in context, then I think it’s great. If anything they should be lauded for their innovation.

  2. Wow! Thanks for your great treatise on this word I just apparently surmised. I was actually surprised this isn’t formally a word. But in the context I’m using it, it’s really the only sensical word! I think it really dulls my sentence to say “this is really the only way to talk about it that makes sense,” instead of saying “it’s really the only sensical way to talk about (…)”

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