Cover of "The Elements of Style, Fourth E...

Cover of The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition

Sometimes, you just take a liking to a word, so let me say, up front, that obtuse is one of my favorites.

Why? I have no idea. I just like the sound of it, but it looks like the meaning is changing with time so I thought I’d address the problem in another one of our series about common mistakes in English. 

Language is not constant. What isn’t a word today, is a word tomorrow. Google for example. Google began as the word googol, the word for a very large number; a one followed by one hundred zeros. The word was ‘invented’ by the nine year old nephew of mathermatician Edward Kasner who [intlink id=”23″ type=”page”]wrote a book[/intlink] in 1940 and popularized the term. Then, when Larry Page and Sergey Brin were looking for a name for their company, a colleague suggested the name, since they were dealing with very large amount of data and it seemed appropriate. Google Inc. would have been Googol Inc. only the founders misspelled the word, and more importantly, the google domain name was available.

So from nothing we have the invention of a word, googol, the use of it to brand a company, Google, and finally the use of that word as a verb. We now ‘google’ things on the web, and I confess to having spent hours ‘googling’ on occasion.  Bare in mind that Googol was in invented in 1938, and Google Inc founded in 1998.

The language changes, and it changes quickly.

But let’s get back to obtuse. When you were at school – ( note ‘at’ school and not ‘in’ school  – this seems to depend which side of the Atlantic you come from ) obtuse was a word which cropped up chiefly in Mathematics when talking about angles. More than a right angle and the angle is described as ‘obtuse’.  The origin of the word (as for many in English) is the Latin, obtusus which means ‘blunt’ ( beat against) You can see the word used in a similar way in other forms, for example in botany ‘obtuse’ means something which is blunt or rounded, but it goes further than that. A person who is ‘slow to understand’ can also be described as ‘obtuse’ in the same sense, that is that they are ‘dull’ or ‘blunt’.

So, what’s the big deal.

Well the controversy about obtuse arrises over a word which sounds very similar; the word abstruse. This, I’m willing to bet, it a word you have come across rather less often.

Abstruse means difficult to understand or obscure and came from the Latin abstrudere ‘conceal’, so straight away, you can see some very definite differences in the words, the problem is that obtuse has been used in place of abstruse so often that even the dictionary has given obtuse the additional meaning ‘difficult to understand’ though many seem willing to deny this completely and claim that the use of obtuse in that sense is completely wrong.

So, what should we do?

Well, as I’ve mentioned before, the [intlink id=”235″ type=”post”]rules of grammar [/intlink]may have very little to do with writing for the web.  Don’t take my words for granted, here’s a quote from Copyblogger which adresses the point.

Every time I see a comment complaining about something like, oh, I don’t know… the improper use of an ellipsis or one-sentence paragraphs, I shake my head with sadness.

They just don’t get it.

Outside of specific professional or academic contexts, writing with a personal style that makes it easier on the reader is more important than pleasing Strunk and White.

The important thing is to get meaning across to the readers, and to do so in a way they can relate to. So, if your audience isn’t likely to know the word abstruse, maybe the best advice is to avoid using it.

On the other hand, if you like to show off your writing ability, have readers that are interested and engaged, and think it would be sad to have a word die out just because people keep getting it wrong, you could champion the cause of abstruse; new words enter the language very quickly in these days of glocal communication, but it still takes a long time for old words to die.

Whatever the dictionary says, and whatever your personal inclination – the origins of the two words, show that obtuse and abstruse cannot have the same meaning, even if both mean ‘difficult to understand’. If an explanation or argument is ‘obtuse’ it is diffcult to understand because it is ‘not sharp’, in other words it’s not very good at it’s job.

If an argument is abstruse, it means it is difficult to understand because it has been deliberately constructed that way. 

As with many things, it’s all about intent.

So by all means choose the word you’e most familiar with,  but never describe anything or anyone as ‘deliberately obtuse’ because that’s right up there with phrases that should never be said, like ‘very unique’.

Nothing is deliberately obtuse except an angle.

If it’s anything else, it’s abstruse.

If you’re looking for more information about grammar and punctuation, why not check out Lynn’s blog  about Business Writing, she has lots of articles with useful information.

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