Coming to our (shared) ‘sensus’

When making decisions or negotiating agreements, it is always helpful to use shared meanings for the terms and concepts we employ. In the interests of promoting that outcome, this etymological interlude* is offered (with considerable assistance from Etymonline).

Gifted with sense

We take for granted that we are all sensate beings, capable of sensation. Etymonline tells us that the word sensate is from Late Latin sensatus “gifted with sense,” which in turn is from sensus “perception, feeling, undertaking, meaning”.

In my previous post, sensemaking was recognised as both a personal and a collective undertaking. We make sense of the world and the circumstances we encounter using our personal schema or frame, and then seek to share our schemas to come to agreed understandings and courses of action in response.

Etymonline tells us that in Kantian philosophy schema means “a product of the imagination intermediary between an image and a concept”, from Greek skhēma “figure, appearance, the nature of a thing,”


One of the terms we use to describe this kind of shared decision-making is consensus.

Etymonline advises that consensus means “a general accord or agreement of different parts in effecting a given purpose,” of persons “a general agreement in opinion;” from Latin consensus “agreement, accord,” past participle of consentire “feel together” (or perhaps “know together”), from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see con-) + sentire “to feel” (see sense (n.))

Sentiment shares the same root, as do consent and assent, and numerous other related terms (see tree chart in the header above). ‘Shared feeling’ doesn’t sound like it describes rational decision-making, as it evokes an emotional response to the trigger circumstances. Shared meaning, however, is the key concept I take from the word consensus. Hence the title ‘Coming to our ‘sensus‘.

Usage advice: The Penguin Wordmaster Dictionary suggests caution in the use of ‘consensus‘. “Since consensus itself means ‘a general agreement’, especially of opinion’, expressions such as ‘a general consensus‘ or ‘a consensus of opinion‘ are considered tautological.” That said, the commentary then observes that these usages are so common that they are deemed acceptable.

Homonym alert – ‘Census’ may sound the same as sensus, but it derives from a different Latin root. ‘Census’ was originally the past participle of censere “to assess”. Originally used in reference to registration and taxation in Roman history, its modern meaning is the “official enumeration of the inhabitants of a country or state, with details”.

Common source

While we are reflecting on the meaning of terms used to describe our decision-making behaviours and goals, it is worth looking at some related terms, all of which have sentire as their common source:

Assent: “agree to, approve;” late 14c. “admit as true,” from Old French assentir “agree; get used to” (12c.), from Latin assentare/adsentare, frequentative of assentire “agree with, approve,” from ad “to” + sentire “to feel, think”.

Consent: agree, give assent; yield when one has the right, power, or will to oppose,” from Old French consentir “agree; comply” (12c.) and directly from Latin consentire “agree, accord,” literally “feel together,” from assimilated form of com “with, together” (see con-) + sentire “to feel”.

Nonsense: “that which is lacking in sense, language or words without meaning or conveying absurd or ridiculous ideas,”

Sense: “meaning, signification, interpretation” (especially of Holy Scripture); c. 1400, “the faculty of perception;” from Old French sens “one of the five senses; meaning; wit, understanding” (12c.) and directly from Latin sensus “perception, feeling, undertaking, meaning,” from sentire “perceive, feel, know.”

Senseless: of persons or their bodies, “without sensation, incapable of feeling,” from sense (n.) + -less. By the 1580s as “in a state of unconsciousness.” Of actions, words, etc., “devoid of purpose, proceeding from lack of intelligence,” also “without meaning, contrary to reason or sound judgment”.

Sensible: “capable of sensation or feeling;” also “capable of being sensed or felt, perceptible to the senses,” hence “perceptible to the mind, easily understood; logical, reasonable,” from Old French sensible and directly from Late Latin sensibilis “having feeling: perceptible by the senses,” from sensus, past participle of sentire “to perceive, feel”.

Sentient: “capable of feeling, having the power of or characterized by the exercise of sense-perception,” from Latin sentientem (nominative sentiens) “feeling,” present participle of sentire “to feel”.

Sentiment: “personal experience, one’s own feeling,” from Old French santement, sentement (12c.) and directly from Medieval Latin sentimentum “feeling, affection, opinion,” from Latin sentire “to feel”.

* Coming between the previous and forthcoming posts on sensemaking.

See also: