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Some people are sensitive about how to use "sensitive"

For several months now, English Professor Anne Curzan has been combing through various editions of the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage to see how usage rules have changed over time.

This project is the quintessential labor of love for a language geek and has yielded some interesting ideas for That’s What They Say, including this week’s highly “sensitive” topic.

As it turns out, the New York Times  is sensitive about using “sensitive” to describe things like documents or issues.

The 1999 edition says, “'Sensitive’ means easily hurt or having keen sensibilities. Its use to mean secret, important or diplomatically fragile is jargon.” The 2015 style manual includes the same meaning, but it goes on to say that “in the sense of secret, important or diplomatically fragile, ['sensitive'] is overused.”

For the most part, New York Times writers do seem to avoid using “sensitive” to describe things like data or issues. This is clear in the Times’ coverage of Facebook’s data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica. When the writers mention the data, they use words like “private” to describe it.

“Sensitive” comes into English in the 15th century with the meaning to have sensation or sense perception. By the 18th century, emotions become part of the definition -- that’s when we start to see “sensitive” used to refer to someone who has delicate feelings or is easily hurt or offended.

Despite the New York Times' concern, using “sensitive” to describe things like issues or data is actually a fairly old use of the word. As early as 1825, “sensitive” is used to describe something that has the potential to cause offense, alarm or controversy.

Curzan checked the Corpus of Contemporary American English to see which words tend to appear alongside “sensitive.” Words like “very” and “highly” are most common. When it comes to nouns, “information” and “issue” both top the list ahead of “skin.”

From what we can tell, using “sensitive” to describe something that is secret, problematic or delicate is extremely common. Do you use “sensitive” this way or do you tend to agree with the New York Times?


Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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