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

 

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

Because the German sensibel is all about being sensitive .

  • “Warum ist Maria denn auf einmal so böse?”
    “Ach die ist ein bisschen sensibel, was ihre Figur angeht.”
  • “Why is Maria so pissed all of a sudden.”
    “Oh, she’s a little sensitive when it comes to her physique.”
  • Ich bin für Horrorfilme zu sensibel.
  • I’m too sensitive for horror movies.
  • Thomas ist manchmal sooo unsensibel.
  • Thomas is sooo insensitive sometimes.
    (as in “lacks tact”)
  • Der Workshop soll die Teilnehmer für das Thema Datenschutz sensibilisieren.
  • The workshop is designed to raise the participants’ awareness/“sensitize the participants” for the topic data security.
  • Der Job als Notarzt ist nichts für Sensibelchen. (slightly dismissive)
  • The job as a doctor in the emergency room is not for sensitive plants/flowers.

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

  • Die Lenkung ist sehr sensibel.
  • The steering is very sensitive.
  • Diese Creme ist für sensible Haut.
  • This creme is for sensitive skin.

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 “Yo skin, what’s up with the pimples. Could you stop that?” and my skin was like “Why?” and I was like ” That’s not helping me picking up women.” 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. 

  • Verglichen mit ihrer Schwester ist Maria ein sehr vernünftiger Mensch.
  • Compared to her sister, Maria is a very sensible person.
  • “Noch ein Bier?”
    “Nee, ich muss vernünftig sein und schlafen gehen.”
  • “Another beer?”
    “Nah, I gotta be sensible and go to sleep.”
  • “Siri, warum ist die Welt so ungerecht?”
    “Polarwind.”
    “Das ist keine sinnvolle Antwort.”
  • “Siri, why is the world so unfair.”
    “Polar winds.”
    “That is not a sensible answer.”

But sensible, or sensibly I should say, 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.

  • Der neue Laptop fährt merklich schneller hoch, als der alte.
  • The new Laptop boots up sensibly/noticeably faster than the old one.

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.

  • Thomas ist, was seine Frisur angeht, ziemlich empfindlich/sensibel. 
  • Thomas is pretty sensitive/spiky when it comes to his hair-do.

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...

  • Ich bin nicht sehr hitzeempfindlich. (sensibel wouldn’t work here at all) 
  • I’m not very sensitive to heat.
  • Mein Telefon hat ein hochempfindliches Mikrofon. (sensibel would work, too, but empfindlich is better)
  • My phone has a highly sensitive microphone.
  • Wo kann ich die Empfindlichkeit von meinem Touch Screen runterstellen?
  • Where can I lower the sensitivity of my touch screen?

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 want to check how much you remember, just take the little quiz I have prepared for you.
And of course, 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)

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Monty
Monty
1 month ago

“Sensible” is only used to express that something is reasonable/makes sense.

Using “sensible” to convey “able-to-be-sensed” is archaic and NOT idiomatic.

Your example: “The tension between Thomas and Maria was sensible.” – This sounds REALLY REALLY bad, and is borderline not-understandable. If I heard someone say this, I would have to stop to think about it, and I would end up assuming they meant that it was reasonable for there to be tension between Thomas and Maria.

Noticeable, palpable, obvious, and blatant are the words we’d use in this context.

NickyD
NickyD
1 month ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Sensibly would also be used within the context of something practical, reasonable, etc. It may be easier to associate sensible as relating to the proverbial “common sense”–i.e, using the mind, not the “sensitive” noticeable senses of perception or detection.

aoind
aoind
1 month ago
Reply to  Emanuel

That sounds to me like it’s a good idea for it to be less secure, i.e. not worth the effort or expense of being any more secure but to be honest I would wonder what you meant by it. To convey the sort of meaning you are going for the choices are many and varied. Observably, measurably, evidently, clearly, perceptibly and so on.

Monty
Monty
1 month ago
Reply to  aoind

Sensibly will always carry the same meaning as sensible, in that the described action “aligns with common sense”.

Sensible is (in my experience) one of the falsest friends in English. My wife (who is VERY German) often misuses it when referring to perception.

It evens out in the end though. She gets LOTS of opportunities to correct my German, lol.

Although, that happens less frequently since I’ve been reading your articles!

Wegen dir, werde mein Deutsch immer besser! Dankeschön!!

Monty
Monty
1 month ago
Reply to  Monty

*wird mein Deutsch immer besser.

Okay, not that less frequent… She corrected that one haha.

aoind
aoind
1 month ago
Reply to  Emanuel

This just conveys that the temperature was previously stupidly cold but common sense has now prevailed and normal, sensible people have been given control of the thermostat.

If I heard this and thought the speaker was trying to convey a meaning of “noticeably warmer” then I would feel a need to point out their error in as nice a way as possible.

shucaomo
shucaomo
4 months ago

No Entscheidung can be “sensibel”, as in the sense of a sensitive scenario so the stakes are incredibly high? or like a touchy, highly sensitive issue?
Danke für deine Erklärung!

Domenica
Domenica
5 years ago

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!

Domenica
Domenica
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Achso! Du hast mich richtig verstanden. Ich habe üb”le” als die richtige Verwendung gesehen und nie gehört, dass das nur eine Kurzversion ist. Danke für deine Erklärung, Emanuel!

hstirtz
hstirtz
5 years ago

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

Abhishek
Abhishek
5 years ago

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

cat face
cat face
5 years ago

“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.

Hawkroost
Hawkroost
5 years ago

“shrinking violet”

melisjansen
melisjansen
5 years ago
Reply to  Hawkroost

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

Kornell Samm
Kornell Samm
5 years ago

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

Amanda
Amanda
5 years ago

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!

Jodi
Jodi
5 years ago

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
5 years ago
Reply to  Jodi

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
5 years ago
Reply to  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.

SteveBead
SteveBead
5 years ago

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.

John
John
5 years ago

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

TheAlchemistress
5 years ago

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
5 years ago

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

aoind
aoind
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It is a onomatopaeic transliteration of the sound a fart makes in the bathtub (apologies).

melisjansen
melisjansen
5 years ago

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.

melisjansen
melisjansen
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

It works for men especially well. It is somewhat in the same vein as a high school football coach insulting his players by calling them “ladies”. But delicate flower is not as rude.

Anonymous
Anonymous
2 years ago
Reply to  melisjansen

jajaja

wie auch immer
wie auch immer
5 years ago

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

wie auch immer
wie auch immer
5 years ago

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”.

Andrew
Andrew
5 years ago

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).

Hugh Warren
Hugh Warren
5 years ago

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

docscope
5 years ago

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

Eloise Smith
5 years ago
Reply to  Emanuel

Oh, now I have a picture in my head of a chef sitting in the driver’s seat of a car with a giant spoon…. So you get these too! I frequently got into trouble in school when these silly pictures would pop into my head and I’d start to giggle -“What’s so funny?” (slightly hostile). It never did any good to explain – they had no sense of humor, those early teachers. Hehe. Now I just enjoy them, and my smarta** family pesters me to tell them. Then THEY run with it…

Anyway, I was a bit puzzled by “das Sensibelchen – the sensitive plant (slightly mocking)” Maybe I just never heard “plant” used this way before, but I’m only getting a picture of a bit of new green vegetation wearing sunglasses and avoiding contact with others of its kind. I can’t remember ever mocking a plant before – does it designate some type of person?

aoind
aoind
5 years ago

“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
5 years ago
Reply to  aoind

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