False Friends Explained – “sensibel vs sensible”

Hello everyone,

and welcome to a new episode of False Friends Explained, this time with a look at the words

sensible and sensibel

 

This pair can lead to serious misunderstandings when it comes to describing people and their character.
If your coworker tells you your new boss is extremely sensible, that’s great news. I mean… who wouldn’t want a sensible boss. This is great news, right?
If your German coworker tells you the new boss is “extrem sensibel” … well… you might want to bring some tissues to the meeting.

Because the German sensibel is all about being sensitive .

People and their feelings and character are the number one context for it but it’s also used in a broader, technical sense.

Saying “sensible skin” would be a typical mistake for a German speaker. I have said that myself multiple times. In my case, it’s not a mistake, though. My skin really is sensible. Like… a few months back all these pimples spawned on my forehead so I was like “Hey skin, I know we’re stressed but could you stop with the pimples?” and my skin was like “Why?” and I was like ” That’s not helping with picking up girls.” and my skin was just like “You have a girlfriend, remember?!?!.” That’s how sensible my skin is. So awful.
But I digress, so  sensibel means sensitive. And the big question is what happened? Why don’t sensible and sensibel line up?

Well, the origin is obviously the Latin word sensus and already back then it was sense in the sense of sensual perception as well as sense in the sense of making sense.
Wow, that was a lot of sense in one sensesense. I … I mean sentence :).
Anyway, the adjective sensible (or its older version) could express that “someone is capable of sensing”  as well as the idea that “something can be sensed” and the more conscious variation “something can be understood, comprehended”. That’s how the whole angle of reasonable came in.
English got the word about 600 years ago from old French. It slowly refocused on the idea of reasonable  and left much (not all) of the perception angle to sensitive.
German also imported its sensibel from French. But it did so about 300 years later and what’s more important – it imported it in a very specific context: the context of medicine. German sensibel was first used to talk about patients feeling pain or reacting to treatment. It didn’t take long before it made its way into every day vocabulary but the whole aspect of logic and reason is missing completely because it was never part of the word in German to begin with.
So, no one really “messed up” the meaning this time. German kind of missed out, but don’t say that out loud… German is a little sensitive with this ;).

All right.
And what about sensible? How do we translate that? Well, it depends on context. If sensible is used in the sense of reasonable, then the best word is vernünftig, if the focus is on purely having some sense, then you’d say sinnvoll. 

But sensible also still has the perception angle in it, so if it is used in the sense of perceivable/detectable then you’d use merklich or fühlbar or spürbar; in a technical sense even messbar.

And I think that’s it. Oh… hold on there’s a call… Akira from Kyoto in Japan, welcome to the show.
“Hello Emanuel, thank you so much for taking my call. I have question if I may.”
Of course Akira, go ahead.
“So, I learned in my course empfindlich as sensitive. Is that synonym for German sensibel or are there differences?” 
Great question! I totally forgot about empfindlich. It is really similar to sensibel and in the context of people you can more or less interchange them.

In more technical sense of perception, detectionempfindlich is the more idiomatic pick and there’s the noun die Empfindlichkeit which is much more common than Sensibilität...

And then there’s the noun die Empfindlichkeit, which is much more common than die Sensibilität.
“So if I use sensibel just for people I’m on the safe side?”
Yeah, I’d say yes. I feel like there are some more subtle differences but I can’t really put my finger on it right now. I hope I could help anyway.
“Oh yeah, definitely. Can I ask one more question?
Of course!
“What about sensitive? Does German have that, too?”
Well, I think it exists in some technical jargon but in daily life you’ll pretty much only see it as part of hygiene product names … you can get an impression with this Google image search, if you’re interested.
“Haha… awesome. Thank you so much.”
Thank you for calling.  And to all of you out there, thanks a lot for tuning in. This was our look at the false friends sensible and sensibel. 
As always, if you have any questions or suggestions or if you want to try out some examples, just leave me a comment.
I hope you liked it and see you next time.

** vocab **

sensible – sinnvoll (making sense), vernünftig (reasonable)
sensibly  – fühlbar, merklich
sensitive – sensibel, empfindlich, empfindsam (sounds positive)

das Sensibelchen – the sensitive plant (slightly mocking)
die Sensibilität – the being sensitive (for people)

die Empfindlichkeit – the sensitivity
sinnlos – pointless, senseless
unsensibel – insensitive (in the sense of having no tact)

for members :)

45
Leave a Reply

avatar
  Subscribe  
newest oldest
Notify of
aoind
aoind

Hi Emanuel thanks for this latest I really enjoyed it. I honestly didn’t know sensible is also a synonym for detectable/perceptible and I doubt many speakers of British English would. I notice on Dictionary.com the American sources do list that as a possible definition while Collins (UK) does not. Most people here would say “You could feel the tension between Maria and Thomas” but if you really wanted an adjective you would be likely to go for something other than “perceptible” – e.g. “electric”, “tangible” or “obvious”.

aoind
aoind

“Sensibly warmer” I would unambiguously take to mean “now as warm as good sense would require” but if the context was clear that it meant “perceptibly warmer” I would think either the writer does not know what “sensibly” means or else they are using an obscure alternative meaning I hadn’t come across yet.

berlingrabers

Some differing opinions pop up below, but this is exactly how I’d perceive it.

docscope

I think Lenkung should be “steering”, like a steering wheel, not “stirring” (like stirring a pot of soup)

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren

I’m with you on ‘sensibly warmer’ Emanuel – it is certainly a useage that is alive, if not very common.

Andrew
Andrew

This may be a regionalism in rhe US, but I have never heard ‘sensitive plant’. Always ‘sensitive flower’ here in Minnesota (and the other English speakimg places i have lived).

wie auch immer
wie auch immer

Something like “sensibly warmer” wouldn’t surprise me in a medical or scientific text, especially an older medical text.

And the Notarzt thing…. I’d probably say “not for the faint/weak of heart” rather than “sensitive plants”. Because then I’m confused about whether you’re redecorating the ER with some potted plants or something. But that doesn’t quite have the dismissiveness I’m assuming Sensibelchen has. Maybe “delicate snowflakes” would be more along the lines of mildly insulting. Or maybe even “delicate flowers”, but that makes me assume you’re talking about prissy girls (with nice nail polish and perfect hair and omg I can not be seen in public with my makeup like that), so it’s kind of more gendered than “delicate snowflakes”.

wie auch immer
wie auch immer

There’s also “sissy”, which is softer than “pussy” but still kind of gendered and derogatory of the feminine.

melisjansen
melisjansen

I think delicate flowers would be the term that would convey a dismissive meaning. I’ve never heard plants used in that context. The snowflake term is used for someone who thinks they are incredibly special and unique.

I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to sensibly warmer, but now that you mention it, it does sound kind of odd.

TheAlchemistress

And for “Die Spannung zwischen Maria und Thomas war spürbar”–We can also comment in English when the tension in the air is “palpable.”
The sentence for “das Sensibelchen”–I am reminded of the idiomatic phrase that something is not for the “faint of heart”.
Great post, as always.

aoind
aoind

“Palpable” was exactly the word I was unsuccessfully scratching around for. Yes indeed – an excellent word.

John
John

FYI, “sensibel” is very close to the portuguese “sensível”. Both mean sensitive and are oft confused by english learners :)

SteveBead
SteveBead

Regarding the origin of sense I was thinking about the word sensory.

sensual – of or arousing gratification of the senses and physical, especially sexual, pleasure.
sensory – relating to sensation or the physical senses; transmitted or perceived by the senses.

Jodi
Jodi

One German question and lots of opinions on the English:

I’ve always had the impression that vernünftig has lots of other (good) connotations with it: honest, hard-working, etc. Perhaps that is just a Swissism (I’m an English speaker with 14 years in the good ole Schweiz) Is that just my cultural lens here, or does that also hold true in other parts of the German speaking world?

English votes:

Definitely delicate flower (I’ve always found pussy extremely vulgar unless you are talking about a cat, but perhaps I’m too sensibel ;)
Palpable (palpably) is an excellent, five dollar word and I would never user ‘sensibly warmer’ in my regular conversations (American, from Ohio)

berlingrabers

Interestingly, “sensibility” in English doesn’t correspond to “sensible” in meaning – hence Jane Austen’s novel Sense & Sensibility, in which one sister is sensible (possessed of the titular sense) and the other highly sensitive (both emotionally and in terms of having exacting aesthetic standards, a.k.a. sensibilities). Apparently the German translation is called Verstand und Gefühl.

berlingrabers

That was intended as a new comment, oops. I find “vernünftig” to have that vibe, too, though the center of gravity is definitely “sensible.” Definitely agree with “pussy” being way more offensive and vulgar than “Sensibelchen,” too.

Amanda
Amanda

Guten Tag! I wanted to say thank you to all the members who donated extra money :) it is because of you that I can join in on the learning fun!

Kornell Samm
Kornell Samm

Actually I found it quite easy to learn German (nicht so schwer)
I used this book for broad vocab: https://www.amazon.de/dp/B06X1G1112 (you can just download it, [EDIT EMANUEL: it is a Kindle-E-Book and not for free]) and for the listening part I just binged through all the videos at Deutschbox http://www.deutschbox.org/(like fluentu but for free)
Here I am with Zertifikat Deutsch – Jeder kann das lernen. :D

Hawkroost
Hawkroost

“shrinking violet”

melisjansen
melisjansen

A shrinking violet is someone who is extremely shy and not necessarily someone who is squeamish or easily upset.

cat face
cat face

“Shrinking violet” is also used for someone squeamish. I think it’s vaguely related to “pansy”, but “pansy” would more likely be used by some guy whose brain in in the homophobic past and thinks the 50’s were the best time in America, when men were men. “Shrinking violet” is much, much more neutral with a very faint whiff of dismissiveness and can be used for anyone with a delicate sensibility.

Abhishek
Abhishek

Hey Emanuel,

Thanks a ton for providing me free access to your website. I am a student, virtually broke, and live in a country where $ translates into almost 70 units of local currency. I never expected that you will reply to my mail, as, your site is hugely popular, and you must be getting a lot of free access demands. But you made my day by reverting.
Your Articles are super lucid, and you explain things better than all of my professors (without charging any money to people like me). I promise you that i will master this language. You are helping me to build my career. The day i become able, i will definitely donate to this website.

Thanks,(Though its not enough!)
Abhishek

India

hstirtz
hstirtz

Hey Emanuel,
Still very much learning, so I may just not get it. But, is this a typo?
Ach die ist ein bisschen sensibel, was ihre Figur angeht

Should it be “Ach sie ist…”? Or am I missing something?

Love, love, love your site! Thank you so much!
Holly

Domenica
Domenica

Hallo Emanuel,
ich habe gedacht, ”sensible skin” ist keine falsche Verwendung, weil es hier gleich wie andere ähnliche Adjektiv wie ”übel” ist. Wenn man Situation beschreibt, wird es ”üble Situation” , d.h. “el” muss “le” sein. Ich verstehe was du gemeint hast, und ich finde einfach gerade solch ein kleinen Zufall. So sieht es keinen Unterschied wenn man als Adjektiv entweder sensible oder sensibel benutzt, oder?
Danke für die Posts jede Monat, die sind sehr hilfreich!