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TWTS: An "abstruse" takeover

When we describe someone as “obtuse,” there are clear negative connotations. The scope of those connotations has been expanding, perhaps because of the word “abstruse.”

“Abstruse” came on our radar recently when Professor Anne Curzan received an email with this subject line: “I thought this word was a joke: abstruse.”

The sender came across this word in a New York Times article about the economist Janet Yellen. It was an opinion piece by Paul Krugman, praising Yellen’s work: “All this may sound abstruse, but I can vouch from my own experience that this work had a huge impact on many young economists — basically giving them a license to be sensible.”

“Abstruse” goes back to Latin and means difficult to understand or obscure. “Obtuse,” the word that “abstruse” seems to be entangled with, also goes back to Latin and means not pointed or blunt. You can see how, metaphorically, “obtuse” comes to refer to people as slow to understand or not sharp. For example, “She’s too obtuse to get the hint.”

Oftentimes “obtuse” is used to describe someone who’s being annoying or willfully unperceptive. Maybe they’re not being sensitive or they’re not understanding something that’s obvious to everyone else. "Obtuse” can also be used to refer to a comment or remark that’s unsubtle or insensitive or clumsy. This is where we think “obtuse” and “abstruse” are getting entwined.

The editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary have gone so far as to write, “The substitution is understandable. Certainly a subject that is abstruse can leave one feeling obtuse.” The editors go on to say, “It’s also possible for remarks that are both insensitive and phrased in esoteric language to be both obtuse and abstruse.”

We appreciate that the Merriam-Webster editors have gone so far as to embrace what’s happening here, which is that “obtuse” now can also mean “abstruse.” In other words, people are using “obtuse” to mean difficult to understand or unclear, so Merriam-Webster editors have added that meaning to the definition of “obtuse” in their dictionaries.

Some of you may want to keep the distinction between “abstruse” and “obtuse,” and that’s fine. Just be aware that “obtuse” is definitely encroaching on “abstruse’s” territory.

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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