Obtuse vs. abstruse
November 6, 2006 6:33 AM   Subscribe

Is the word "obtuse" being used correctly here [line 5]?

Recently, I've seen obtuse used in this context a lot. My understanding of the definition, which is supported as far as I tell by the OED, is that obtuse means blunt, dull (in the sense of a dull blade), or stupid (when describing people). One can see from the context that Stephen Dubner, the journalist writing the article I linked to above, is saying he thinks the language of economics journals is "remote from apprehension or conception; difficult, recondite". This is the OED definition of abstruse, which is surely a more appropriate word.

I've seen obtuse used in this context, where abstruse seems a better choice, in several places, especially on the web. Is it simply a common mistake? This is an obvious explanation, but many of the people using obtuse like this are literate professional writers (like Dubner). Is it an Americanism?
posted by matthewr to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
He probably means abstruse -- "difficult to penetrate; incomprehensible to one of ordinary understanding or knowledge" -- which would make good sense in the context:
Most of the literature isn’t very interesting or meaningful to me (this is simply a matter of preference); and some of it might be interesting or meaningful but I am unable to tell. Why? Because the language of economists is often – not always, certainly, but often – deeply obtuse abstruse. Now, again, this is my problem, having to do with my preferences and my skills. Research economists, like most academics, are writing for their peers, not the laity. And as much I might like their research to be written in plainer English...
posted by pracowity at 6:42 AM on November 6, 2006


Via Bartleby, an entry from the Columbia Guide to Standard American English (1993) on obtuse/abstruse:

Obtuse in its literal sense means “blunt or dull,” and an obtuse angle is one of more than 90 degrees but less than 180 degrees. The figurative sense of obtuse (which is almost always applied to people and their behavior) is “dull, imperceptive, unintelligent, unthinking”: How can he be so obtuse as not to understand us? Abstruse means “difficult to grasp or comprehend, needlessly complex, impossible to understand” and is applied typically to arguments, propositions, and the like: Her proposals were so abstruse as to be meaningless to us. Using obtuse as a rough synonym of abstruse is Nonstandard, and you should avoid it.
posted by padjet1 at 6:43 AM on November 6, 2006


Is it being used correctly? Well, on the one hand he intended to say something and you understood what he intended to say. That is, you and he communicated successfully.

I have to admit that I've used obtuse in that way, to mean abstruse. But being the way I am I'm going to stop that now.

If forced to speculate further, I'd say it was a common mistake which has now, or will soon, turn into a legitimate use.
posted by oddman at 6:44 AM on November 6, 2006


Hey, I just read your question more closely and noticed that you answered your own question. Give yourself a star.
posted by pracowity at 6:44 AM on November 6, 2006


No. He appears to either mean abtruse, like you said, or the third definition of obtuse: stupid and slow to understand, or unwilling to try to understand. This applies to someone or something perceiving a thing, not someone or something presenting a thing. I can be uncomprehending in reading your question, but you can't be uncomprehending in asking it.

I'd be upset about this, but most of my nitpicking is devoted to the misuse of decadent. No thank you, I will pass on your decaying and/or immoral chocolate.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 6:45 AM on November 6, 2006


"Because the language of economists is often – not always, certainly, but often – deeply obtuse."

Translated, into different words:

Because the language of economists is often – not always, certainly, but often – very strange..

Sound's fine to me. No one uses abtruse so using it wouldn't make the overall idea clearer. Just like using the word "appendant," which means 'attached', the author is simply choosing words that the audience already knows.
posted by maxpower at 6:47 AM on November 6, 2006


Sound's fine to me. No one uses abtruse so using it wouldn't make the overall idea clearer. Just like using the word "appendant," which means 'attached', the author is simply choosing words that the audience already knows.

Using familiar words incorrectly instead of unfamiliar words correctly is a rather obtuse suggestion.
posted by padjet1 at 6:55 AM on November 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


It seems to me like he is really just misusing the word "deeply" in connection with it. If you subtract "deeply", then his usage of "obtuse" would make more sense in the correct way as well in the implied mistaken way.
posted by hermitosis at 6:57 AM on November 6, 2006


According to Merriam-Webster, which produces the American dictionary of first reference for the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press, obtuse means, among other things, "difficult to comprehend : not clear or precise in thought or expression." There is no usage note or annotation indicating that it is nonstandard. For me, this is good enough to think that it is standard American English.

I think few Americans would know what "abstruse" means.
posted by grouse at 7:04 AM on November 6, 2006


He means abstruse. A better word would be esoteric.

Obtuse/abstruse is the they're/their/there of the learned folk.
posted by jellicle at 7:06 AM on November 6, 2006


jellicle: Then I challenge you to find a dictionary that defines "their" as an abbrevation for "they are."
posted by grouse at 7:14 AM on November 6, 2006


Thanks, padjet1, the Bartleby link confirmed the hypothesis that it's just a common mistake.

Hermitosis and maxpower, I disagree with your suggestions that the sentence makes sense, considering the dictionary definitions of obtuse. He's saying that the language of economics is hard to understand and, perhaps, needlessly complex (hence, 'abstruse'). The 'obtuse' or 'abstruse' is describing the language itself, not the process of perception. Economic language certainly isn't 'blunt'. Neither is it stupid — I'm not sure that language can of itself be 'stupid', and if any language is 'stupid', it certainly isn't the highly-technical jargon used in economics.

grouse, thanks for the Merriam-Webster definition. Since the relevant M-W definition (2[b]) doesn't appear in the OED, I'm inclined to think it is in 'standard' use (for some definition of standard) only in America.

Thanks all.
posted by matthewr at 7:14 AM on November 6, 2006


I'd say it was a common mistake which has now, or will soon, turn into a legitimate use.

Bingo. I don't like it, but I hear and see it all the time, so there's really no point fighting it, just as with disinterested used to mean 'uninterested.' Language change is unstoppable, but sometimes it sucks.
posted by languagehat at 7:37 AM on November 6, 2006


Even if obtuse was the right word, "deeply obtuse" is almost a mixed metaphor.
posted by winston at 7:49 AM on November 6, 2006



One definition of obtuse is "lacking in insight or discernment" which would then read as:

"Because the language of economists is often (very much) lacking in insight or discernment."

This use of the word seems ok to me as I don't understand the language of economists and I do find a lack in insight when reading their ideas as they relate to the common man.

matthewr and padjet1

The sentence makes sense as is because I understand the authors intention and meaning regardless of what the definition of the words are.
posted by maxpower at 7:52 AM on November 6, 2006


But that is pretty much the opposite of the author's meaning, maxpower. He says he can't understand what academic economists mean, since the language they use is so complex and difficult to understand.

I looked up your "lacking in insight or discernment" quotation, and found that, judging from the explanatory example next to it, that definition specifically applies to people — I don't see how it could apply to language.

I do find a lack in insight when reading their ideas as they relate to the common man.

This is a criticism of economics itself. The language of economics may well be created to describe its ideas, but they're two separate things. I couldn't read a paper about relativistic physics, but that doesn't mean I doubt the ideas it contains.
posted by matthewr at 8:04 AM on November 6, 2006


It seems strange, because superficially, obtuse and abstruse appear to be mutually exclusive. On deeper analysis however, it is clear that abstruse statements are obtuse.
posted by Chuckles at 8:15 AM on November 6, 2006


I don't know, Chuckles. To the layman, like Dubner, the language of economic academia is abstruse. But to economists, the language concisely, rigorously describes what they mean.

If you were to write an article on economics for a national newspaper in the abstruse language of economics, you might frustrate your readers and make them feel obtuse. It would be obtuse of you, the writer, to expect laypersons to understand such abstruse language.

But to a professional economist, this supposedly abstruse language is anything but. Indeed, to describe academic economic thought in a less abstruse language would be obtuse.
posted by matthewr at 8:24 AM on November 6, 2006 [1 favorite]


Terminal Verbosity: most of my nitpicking is devoted to the misuse of decadent. No thank you, I will pass on your decaying and/or immoral chocolate.

Not to completely derail here, but I'm pretty sure decadent can also mean "luxuriously self-indulgent."
posted by atomly at 8:30 AM on November 6, 2006


Your previous post convinced me matthewr - I failed to preview. Not about economics, mind you, which is pretty obtuse, but about the use of language in the article. The author clearly meant abstruse.

I think it is interesting that substituting obtuse for abstruse can, in some contexts, be a nice shorthand for an idea.
posted by Chuckles at 8:34 AM on November 6, 2006


Interesting... I used to be something of a grammar nazi and didn't realize using obtuse this way (which I do frequently) was nonstandard. I do know the word abstruse, and use it infrequently, but I've never had anybody pause at my (apparent mis-) use of obtuse. Perhaps its standardization as a synonym for abstruse has progressed more than the guides have documented.
posted by anildash at 8:47 AM on November 6, 2006


I used to be something of a grammar nazi and didn't realize using obtuse this way (which I do frequently) was nonstandard

Heh. That's another excellent reason (besides the fact that it's unscientific and elitist) for not being a grammar nazi: one is bound to make "mistakes" and get found out. (If I wanted to, I could make a really great grammar nazi, though... *rubs hands*)
posted by languagehat at 9:10 AM on November 6, 2006


It could be a mistake resulting from blending obscure with abstruse, either of which would be better.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:28 AM on November 6, 2006


I'd offer that perhaps the word they were grasping for might have also been obscure (hard to see, hidden).
posted by plinth at 10:04 AM on November 6, 2006


d'oh.
posted by plinth at 10:05 AM on November 6, 2006


atomly: Not to completely derail here, but I'm pretty sure decadent can also mean "luxuriously self-indulgent."

It has come to mean that through misuse. The OED has it now? Christ, I give up.
posted by Terminal Verbosity at 7:12 AM on November 7, 2006


No, the "luxuriously self-indulgent" definition is from the "Compact" Oxford edition. The full, "proper" OED doesn't have that definition.
posted by matthewr at 11:39 AM on November 7, 2006


That's only because they haven't gotten around to revising the d's yet. The Compact isn't some sleazy, plebeian knockoff; it's just more up to date, and the changes it reflects will be in the "proper" OED eventually. The OED, like all serious dictionaries, includes all usages that have become widespread enough to warrant it.
posted by languagehat at 12:31 PM on November 7, 2006


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