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The Scrivener: How Sharp Is Cute?

Brian Barratt, on another enlightening lexicographical journey, pays acute attention to the derivation of the word "cute''.

When someone speaks of a cute kid, we usually know what they mean an attractive or pleasing child. However, a search through literature and 14 dictionaries reveals another story.

In 'Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea' (1870) Jules Verne writes of a fisherman, 'Skill, coolness, audacity, and cunning, he possessed in a superior degree, and it must be a cunning whale or a singularly cute cachalot to escape the stroke of his harpoon'.

Just over 40 years later, D.H.Lawrence, in 'Sons and Lovers', writes of a character, 'There was something rather "doggy", rather smart, rather 'cute and shrewd, and something warm, and something slightly contemptible about him'.

The apostrophe in front of 'cute betrays the history of the word. It is an aphetic form of acute. In other words, the initial vowel has been dropped. To find out what cute originally meant, we have to do a bit of research into acute.

Acute comes from a Latin word meaning to sharpen. One of its earliest uses in English was to describe an acute angle, an angle which is less than a right angle (90) and so the two lines which form it come to a sharp point. That was in about 1570.

It wasn't long before that remarkable gentleman William Shakespeare picked it up. He used it only twice and in only one of his plays. In 'Love's Labour's Lost' (1594) we find mention of a 'most acute juvenal', a most acute youth, and:
'This is a gift that I have, simple, simple; a foolish extravagant spirit, full of forms, figures, shapes, objects, ideas, apprehensions, motions, revolutions.... But the gift is good in those in whom it is acute, and I am thankful for it.'

This usage implies keen, quick-witted, clever. In other words, mentally sharp. By the early 1700s, acute with this meaning had been shortened to cute.

In the 1830s, cute seems to have been used more commonly in the USA to mean attractive or pretty. In the early 1900s, the first meaning in Webster's Twentieth Century dictionary is clever, sharp, cunning, as 'a cute swindle'. My father's pre-1913 edition of Chambers English Dictionary indicates that in the UK it was still used only to denote acute, sharp-pointed, keen; the opposite of dull.

In the mid-1990s Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary shows how the main meaning had changed in British usage: an aphetic form of acute: daintily or quaintly pleasing.
The various usages were sorted and sequenced in Collins English Dictionary, UK and Australian editions, in the 1980s: 1. appealing or attractive, esp. in a pretty way. 2. Informal: affecting cleverness or prettiness. 3. clever, shrewd. The second meaning seems to have arisen in the USA, as two major 21st century American dictionaries have, respectively, 'obviously contrived to charm' and 'obviously straining for effect'.

Heinemann Australian Dictionary (1992) interprets this as 'clever or two clever'.

There is yet another shade of meaning in The New Penguin English Dictionary (2000). 'Sexually attractive' has been added to the other two main definitions.

Copyright Brian Barratt


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