Sharp as a Knife

During a math lesson on angles with my verbally-gifted fifth-grade student, Brandan*, I drew a picture of an acute angle and an obtuse angle and labeled them. He immediately said, in a high voice, “Ooooh it is such a cute angle.” I told him that was exactly how I always remembered it, but that wasn’t really what it meant. Of course, he wanted to know what it really meant, and I already had my fingers on the keyboard to look it up on etymonline.com.

We found that acute is an adjective and came from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *ak, which means to “be sharp, rise (out) to a point, pierce.” The meaning was originally used for illness and fevers in the late 1400s. The meaning “ending in a sharp point” and “sharp or penetrating intellect” both came about around the late 1500s. As a descriptive term for intense or sharp pain it was used beginning in the early 1700s.

We talked about how the word could be used literally– like it is used in geometry or more figuratively such as when we talk of disease or pain.

And as it turned out—the adjective cute is related!

In 1731 it is attested as cute, meaning “clever, sharp, smart,” shortening of acute; informal sense of “pretty” is by 1834, It is American English colloquial and student slang.

Later, I followed up with a more indepth study of the word. In John Ayto’s Word I learned that it is related to the English word ague, which is an older word for flu. The Latin verb, acuere, was probably formed from Latin word for needle, acus. Other words that stem from the PIE root *ak are acid, acrid, acetic, oxygen and edge.

 With the information I had previously gathered, I used Wordsearcher.com to compile a list of possible related words.

I looked up, and ruled out, the unrelated words, persecute, prosecute, execute and their derivitives because they have a different base. I noticed that cutey and cuteys was an unconventional spelling, so I looked up both cutie and cutey and found that they are alternate spellings with the same meaning.

Next,  I created a matrix in Mini Matrix Maker.

These are the word sums possible with this matrix:

cute (free base)

a + cute à acute

cute/ + er à cuter

cute/ +ey à cutey

cute + ly à cutely

cute/ + est à cutest

cute + sy à cutesy

cute/ + ey + s à cuteys

a + cute + ly à acutely

cute + ness à cuteness

a + cute + ness à acuteness

cute/ + ie à cutie

cute/ + ie + s à cuties

(The slash mark indicates that the letter is replaced by the vowel suffix which follows.)

As Brandan and I were talking, I looked up obtuse in Etymonline.com. I found that obtuse is from the early fifteenth century and means “dull, blunted, not sharp” It comes from the Latin obtusus, which had the same meaning as well as a more figurative meaning “to beat against, make dull” The morphemes are ob- (“in front of, against”) + tundere “to beat” from PIE root*(s)tud-e- “to beat strike, thrust from PIE root *(s)teu- “to push, stick, knock, beat. The sense of “stupid, not senstetive or perceptive is from the 1500s. In geometry, it became the name of an angle greater than a right angle in the 1560s.

I tried to elicit its meaning from Brandan, I asked “What is the opposite of sharp?” He had a puzzled look on his face and answered with “fluffy?” I laughed at the image already in my head and tried again, “I can have a sharp knife or a…” I waited for him to come up with a response. And I waited a second longer. Then he cocked his head and slowly said “fluffy knife?”

I laughed and drew a cloud-like blade and handle on the whiteboard table in front of him. We both burst out laughing.

I explained the meaning “dull, blunted, not sharp” to him and his eyes got big with understanding and discovery. I then explained that the word could be used to describe someone who is being stupid, or just clueless. He rubbed his hands together in glee, planning already to use the insult on his little sister.

We went back to our math problems with a game we call “splatball” (an impromptu game we made up, basically throwing Crayola Globbles at a target drawn on the whiteboard.) Every few minutes, Brandan said, “fluffy knife” and we burst out laughing again.

Tutoring bright funny kids makes my job the best!

I continued the research the word obtuse later and found related words and made a matrix. From John Ayto’s Word Origins, I found that the word is related to contusion and toil. I searched words in Wordsearcher.com using the search <tuse>


Again, I ruled out any words that were not related, and then I did an additional search for <tus> which yielded the related words: contused, contuses, contusing, contusion, and contusive.

ob + tuse à obtuse

ob + tuse + ly à obtusely

ob + tuse + ness à obtuseness

con + tuse/ + ion à contusion

con + tuse/ + ive à contusive

con + tuse/ + ed à contused

con + tuse/ + es à contused

con + tuse/ + ing à contusing

obtund (does not fit in matrix but is related.)

Brandan’s drawing of a “fluffy knife”

*names and details changed but be sure to look up the meaning of the name “Brandan.”

Resources used:

etymonline.com

Word Origins, second ed. John ayto

Minimatrix Maker http://www.neilramsden.co.uk/spelling/matrix/temp/index.html

Wordsearcher http://www.neilramsden.co.uk/spelling/searcher/

Refractionary–An Investigation into a Character Name

One of my reluctant reader teen students, Rory*, needs to read three books over the summer. The first book he chose was Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. Rory listened to the audiobook quickly—and immediately started the next—high praise indeed! He dubbed it a “page turner” which we thought funny since he is listening to it. I read my copy on my Kindle and I liked the option of highlighting and returning to ideas for exploration with Rory. I like reading along with my students so we can discuss the books and I often use words or themes for further study.

One of the things I like about using this book as a launching pad to our tutoring sessions is how the names of many of the Epics (superhumans who take over and rule the earth) have names that were morphological treasure troves. The first name we explored was Refractionary, an Epic who is a “Class A Illusionist with invisibility capabilities.” She is a lesser Epic and has difficulty maintaining her illusions. There is always a tell-tale shimmer as if light is reflecting on her.

Photo by Valeria Boltneva on Pexels.com

We began this investigation by finding the base of the word. Rory is an experienced word investigator with  gifted level verbal abilities and was able to analyze the word into a word sum <re + fract + ion + ary>  or maybe <re + fract + ion +ar(e) + y>. In any case he teased out the <fract> as the probable base and we went to Etymonline to search out the meaning of the base. We did not find <fract> but our search showed us <fracture>. Was there a possible relationship?  I suggested he try adding back on the prefix <re-> and we found our trail.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We found that refract is a verb meaning “to bend” and is a back formation from refraction, from Late Latin (1560s.) Refraction is a noun of action, <re> “back” + fract “to break up, possibly with a sense of undoing” + ion (a noun making suffix).  The Latin word it is derived from is the combining form franger “to break” which in turn appears to come from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *bhreg-  “to break”

Following the PIE Root led us to find connections that did not fit in our matrix to other familiar words such as brake, fragile, frail, and fragment.

We agreed that <fract> must be a bound base because it shared the same meaning in the word fracture. We agreed that this was a fitting name for our Epic, because she shimmers as she refracts the light.

Next, we went to Wordsearcher and found words that we thought would be related and began to construct a matrix. We decided to leave any exploration of <ary> versus <ar(e) + y> for another day and use <ary> in our matrix.

As we put each word into the matrix, Rory defined words, used them in sentences, and explained how they had a sense of “breaking.” Words we were unsure of, we looked up in a dictionary to get a better understanding.

To finish off our session, we played one Jenga block after writing out a word sum This is Rory’s favorite part of the lesson and we get very competitive. We keep playing until we run out of words to build or our tower falls down.

*Names and details changed