More Sharp Words
Bill Long 10/27/04
Acerose, Acicular, Acuminous
I was planning to get to acicular and acuminous last essay but I ran out of space. In the meantime I stopped and picked up a hitch-hiker, acerose, whose story is so interesting that I thought I should tell it briefly. Let's start with acerose, then.
Most would see the root acer in this word, meaning "sharp, pointed, strong, pungent, acrid," and conclude that the word acerose means "sharp." And, that conclusion would be correct, but the story is more complex than that. Actually, the word is derived from acerosus which is a term referring to flour or bread and meaning "having the husks included." For example, a Latin attestation in the OLD speaks of "et frumentum et panis non sine paleis acerosus dicitur," which may be translated: "grain and bread, not without (i.e., with) the husks is called acerosus." Thus, the original English signification of acerose, from the early 18th century, means "chaffy; like, or mixed with chaff."
But then Linneaus got into the act. That great classifier, who died in 1778, apparently understood the word to come from acer and began to speak of acerose leaves as "needleshaped and rigid." From 1785 a writer says, "The leaves of all these are linear and permanent; Linnaeus calls this sort of leaf acerose." A nineteenth century author can say, "When a linear leaf terminates in a sharp rigid point like a needle, it is acerose or needle-shaped." There you have it. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff on this word has demonstrated that its "sharp" connotation is incorrect and secondary but is the only one really in use today. Let's bring back the original root! "The coffee tasted like mud and the bread felt acerose." Oh well.
Acicula is "a technical name for a slender needle-like body, such as the spines or prickles with which some animals and plants are furnished, or the needle-like crystals of certain minerals." Acicular is the adjective, and was used by the 19th century naturalist James Dwight Dana in the natural history sense--"with long, acicular, and nearly naked branchlets." However, its use in relation to crystals became more prevalent as the science of gemology developed, and now the most frequent word with which it is connected in internet word searches is "crystal." For example, in describing the mineral creedite an author can say: "creedite’s crystals are found in a prismatic form with a dome termination and an acicular form in which a group of crystals radiate from a center." This acicular crystal formation is inside the gem; indeed, such a formation makes it highly treasured.
The word aciculite is used to describe the mineral Acicular Bismuth, discovered by a Dr A. Aikin and hence also known as aikinite, and is further defined as an ore "crystallizing in needle-shaped crystals, belonging to the prismatic or ortho-rhombic system." Yikes. We can get in over our heads very quickly. Let's quickly retreat and declare victory. We have pretty much cornered acicular now. Let's confine it to use in describing crystals because both aculeate and acuminous suffice to bear the figurative freight of the underlying words meaning "sharp."
We conclude, then, with acuminous. To no one's surprise, by now, it means "distinguished by acumen; acute." Something that is acuminate is "pointed or tapering to a point," especially in natural history, but acuminate can be a verb used figuratively, and powerfully, to express the idea of "giving poignancy or keenness to." So William Cowper could say in 1800, "Tones so dismal, as to make woe itself unsupportable, and to acuminate even despair." How is that for a vivid picture--sharpened or pointed despair.
Then we arrive at the word acuminous. One attestation has it: "Whose writings are altogether as luminous as acuminous." A person can give "the same acuminous dispaly of talent and science." A professor might give an acuminous lecture. It is good to have in our verbal quiver an arrow of this precision and visuality.
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