sensitivities (pl.)

geoffrey nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Thu Aug 26 04:33:49 UTC 2010

A Google Books search on "+sensitivities" (i.e., searching just for the plural) turns up hundreds of hits before 1969, but all of them involve reference to medical, biological, chemical, and electrical phenomena or the like. As best I can tell, it isn't till around 1970 that the plural form is first used with reference to the affects, on the model (I assume) of "feelings" and maybe "values," as in "Certain aspects in the permissive society could prove too shocking or distasteful to some people's sensitivities, and readers contemplating joining the Forum Study Tour of Copenhagen are herewith forewarned." Btw, "people's sensitivities" gets ca. 250 (actual) hits on Google Books, all of them after 1970.

I'd be interested to know if this use of the plural can be taken back a few years (the intended sense of the word isn't always evident), but it's apparently a 1960's development. I'm not sure how to label these plurals, as in "respect someone's sensitivities/feelings" -- is it a pluralia tantum (or maybein some cases, a pluralia tantrum?). I'm also not sure what to make of the appearance of the plural form: did it herald a new sense of "sensitivity"?

Geoff Nunberg

The American Dialect Society -

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