Q: What are the connotations of “terse” vs. “curt”? Why does the latter seem somehow terser?
A: When used to describe language, “terse” and “curt” can both mean brief, concise, and pithy, but “curt” often has the negative senses of brief to a fault or rudely brief, especially when characterizing speech.
The differing senses of the two adjectives may reflect their Latin origins. “Terse” comes from tersus, Latin for clean, neat or correct, while “curt” comes from curtus, Latin for broken off, mutilated, or shortened.
“Terse” referred literally to something clean, neat, and correct when it first appeared in English at the beginning of the 17th century. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, which we’ve expanded, describes a street in Rome:
“I protest to thee, I am enamord of this streete now, more then of halfe the streetes of Rome, againe; tis so polite, and terse: Ther’s the front of a Building now. I study Architecture too: if euer I should build, I’de haue a house iust of that Prospectiue.” (From Poetaster; or, The Arraignment, 1602, a satirical comedy by Ben Jonson.)
The OED says that old sense of “terse” is now obsolete, and the current meaning is “freed from verbal redundancy; neatly concise; compact and pithy in style or language.” We’ve expanded the dictionary’s first citation for this sense:
“In eight terse lines has Phædrus told / (So frugal were the Bards of old) / A Tale of Goats; and clos’d with grace / Plan, Moral, all, in that short space.” (From The Goat’s Beard: A Fable, 1777, by the English poet and playwright William Whitehead.)
The adjective “curt,” which appeared in the early 17th century, describes a word, sentence, and so on that’s terse or terse to a fault, according to the OED. The dictionary’s first example refers to the simply terse name of a hostler, someone who cares for horses at an inn:
“Peck! his name is curt, / A monosyllabe, but commands the horse well.” (From Ben Jonson’s 1631 comedy The New Inne: or, The Light Heart.)
The next Oxford citation, which refers to Hebrew passages in the Old Testament, uses “curt” to mean terse to a fault:
“The obscure and curt Ebraisms that follow.” (From Tetrachordon, a 1645 treatise by Milton. Its title comes from τετράχορδον, ancient Greek for “four stringed.” Milton, whose wife left him, cites four biblical passages to justify divorce.)
In the early 19th century, “curt” took on the additional sense of “so brief as to be wanting in courtesy or suavity,” according to the OED. The earliest example cited is from Benjamin Disraeli’s novel The Young Duke (1831):
“ ‘Ah! I know what you are going to say,’ observed the gentleman in a curt, gruffish voice. ‘It is all nonsense.’ ”