Sunday, 26 June 2011

Sensibility v. sensitivity

Bear with me if you're into words - you wouldn't know it from the next paragraph, but this is a word post.

For fifteen years or so, I have suffered from a quite unusual condition known as meralgia parasthetica - hypersensitivity. It affects an area of my thigh and hip the size of a paperback, and feels for all the world as though there is a criss-cross pattern of shallow scratches in that area; the degree of discomfort varies according to how long I've been standing - the longer the stand, the more intolerable the pain. In all that time, and at this moment, if you asked me what I had in my right hand trouser pocket, I would have an instant answer: nothing. I can't tolerate anything hard or lumpy against the skin.

Anyway, the operative word is 'hypersensitivity' - the skin is abnormally sensitive to the touch. Well, recently I was asked to look at a piece of text from a medical manuscript which mentioned 'Change in sensibility' in the context of symptoms in orthopaedic disorders. Sensibility? 'Sensitivity', surely. I would have bet the farm the correct word was 'sensitivity', and I did. I changed it. To me, 'sensibility' has to do with state of mind, as in  Sense and Sensibility, 'heightened sensibility' or 'political sensibility'. However, someone who knows better than me pointed out that I was wrong, that 'sensibility' should stand. Full of righteous indignation, I consulted Chambers (my favourite), Oxford and Websters, and found these definitions:-

Chambers (above) was with me: 1. The ability or capacity to feel or have sensations or emotions; 2. a delicacy of emotional response; sensitivity... 3. (sensibilities) feelings that can easily be offended or hurt.

Oxford (above) seemed to be on my side too, although the 2nd definition is getting closer to the meaning in the medical manuscript: 1. the quality of being able to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic infuences; sensitivity... 2. Zooology, dated sensitivity to sensory stimuli.

Websters (above), I had to admit, put a dent in my confidence, especially as definition 1 refers to something called 'tactile sensibility'. (I won't repeat Websters entry as I think you can read it from the image.)

Finally, I looked up Websters Medical Dictionary (below), and had to throw in the towel. Definition 1 is pretty conclusive, at least in the context of medicine:-

Websters Medical Dictionary
You learn a new thing every day.
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