The Grammarphobia Blog

Don’t be cute!

Q: This is a comment, not a question. I always seem to catch your appearances on WNYC when I am not near a phone, thus I missed a chance to call in during the recent discussion of “cute.” The fact that one of your listeners heard New York City detectives using the word in a negative way struck me as owing to the strong influence of the Irish on the culture of the NYPD.

I have spent a good deal of time over the years with relatives in Ireland, where the word “cute” has always seemed to mean “clever,” but in a pejorative sense. Dubliners, for example, refer to the people from Cork as being “very cute,” implying: “Keep an eye on your wallet.”

I would maintain that this usage is not, as stated on the program, derived from our contemporary meaning of the word (usually said of attractive children), but rather from the Latin acutus, meaning sharpened. Pardon the pedantry. I guess it is my way of making up for all the Latin that I was forced to endure over the years—and now the Pope seems to be threatening to bring it all back!

A: Thanks for your interesting comments. I wish you’d been near a phone when I appeared last on the Leonard Lopate Show!

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees with you that “cute” comes from the Latin word acutus. In fact, the earliest published references for “cute” in the OED, going back to the 18th century, use the word to mean acute, clever, or shrewd, much as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson used “acute” in the 16th century.

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