Invigilant et al.
Property Terms I
Property Terms II
Property Terms III
Shining Words I
Shining Words II
Rhetorical Devices I
Rhetorical Devices II
Rhetorical Devices III
Rhetorical Devices IV
Maxims of Equity I
Maxims of Equity II
Maxims of Equity III
Aculeate and Acuminous and Aciculate
Bill Long 10/27/04
Sharpening our Intellect
All of these words, and many others relating to each, ultimately come from the same Latin root that means, most basically, "to sharpen." But figurative meanings easily attach to "sharp," and the linguistic reach of these words takes us from needles and pins to sharp bodily parts to jagged crystal edges to scintillating intellects. Let's trace the journey.
The Basic Latin Word(s)
The verb "acuo" means "to cut or sharpen (weapons, teeth) to a point. It can also suggest the stirring up or stimulating of the emotions and, for sake of completeness, to accent a word (the "acute" accent). English took over the word, though the OED says it is obsolete, in the verb acuate (not to be confused with actuate), but the OED only has the definition as "sharpen" either literally or figuratively. The notion of arousing emotion seems not to have carried over in English, even though there is no good reason why it shouldn't. Old attestations are: "Wine acuates the ingenuity and rouses the spirits." A drug "comforts the memory and acuates the senses." But why not then bring the word into usage today both as "sharpen" and "stimulate the emotions"? "Long exposure to classical music acuated his aural skills." "Knowledge of rhetorical techniquie helped him acuate the unsuspecting audience."
Then, once we have reclaimed the verb, using the nouns and adjectives is easy. "He sharpened knives like he acuated his skills: carefully, cautiously, thoroughly." "Acuation (also acuition) of the body's response system is often the major purpose for this type of calisthenics." Sooner or later, then, we get to a word with which we are all familiar, acuity, and we heave a sigh of relief as if we have regained a familiar road after a long detour. But, on this detour we rediscovered a word that still ought to have resonance today.
Therefore, something that is aculeate is "furnished with a sting," "prickly," or figuratively speaking, "pointed, incisive, stinging." What is the goal of education? Bacon says in the 17th century, "The labor here is altogether, that words may be aculeate, sentences concise." Yes, I say in response. It seems that with the profusion of words in our culture, in law, academia, medicine and elsewhere, that words have lost their meaning, like food that has lost its taste. They are no longer aculeate. "The apothegms and aculeated sayings of the ancients..." If you uttered aculeate(d) animadversions, you would have spoken either stinging criticisms or incisive observations.
This last sentence is worth a further question. What is the use of aculeate if it carries within itself an ambiguity--that is, it can either be an "incisive" (but not critical or bitter) observation or it can be a "sharp" (highly critical) observation? Isn't it just another word that a very intelligent person can hide behind, only getting smoked out of his logophilia if someone is sharp enough to ask him or her how they are using aculeate? Two responses. First, if you know what the word means, which you now do, you also know enough either to divine a person's intention or to skewer them with a sharp question on the way in which they are using aculeate. Second, it is advantageous at times to have an ambiguous word, where sharp can mean either insightful or critical. Sometimes you don't really know when something is uttered, or even when you utter it, whether it is said in a "needling" or an "incisive" manner. Thus it can become a very useful word on many occasions.
But every vivid word, such as aculeate, ought also to have a diminutive, so that if you want to back away from vigorous statement, you can do so. Academicians and others are fond of using "a bit" or "rather" to cover their tracks; why not see aculeolate in that way? Defined by the OED as "beset with diminutive prickles," the word is mostly useful in describing the leaves or other features of plants. But if we are trying to say that someone's words are a "little" sharp, they are aculeolate words. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but aculeolate words can't hurt me, even though their big brother, aculeate words, might do the trick.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long