In Alain de Botton’s novel The Romantic Movement, I came across this sentence: “‘Actually, I was just wondering why we’d be needing three sets of knives and forks,’ replied Alice curtly.” That last word is the adverb made from curt, whose curt definition in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language was ‘Short,’ though he lengthened it with the observation that the word was “rarely used, and not elegant.” I’d say Webster’s attitude was too curt, as the word is indeed used more than rarely, or at least has come to be in the intervening two centuries. Definitions from some current dictionaries include: ‘rudely blunt and brief; abrupt; short or concise; using few words in a way that shows you are impatient or angry; rude as a result of being very quick; marked by rude or peremptory shortness.’ And so we’re back to ‘short,’ which we know is corto in Spanish. English curt goes back to Anglo-Norman, where it had evolved from the same Latin curtus that gave rise to Spanish corto. Unsurprisingly, Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary defined curtus as ‘shortened, mutilated, broken, short,’ but it went on to add examples showing the euphemistic meanings ‘circumcised’ and even ‘castrated,’ which ought to bring us up short. From curtus came the Latin verb curtāre, the ancestor of the familiar Spanish cortar that means ‘to cut short, shorten, cut off.’ The Spanish compound recortar has the sense ‘to cut out,’ as for example an article in a newspaper or a pattern on a piece of material. It can also mean ‘to trim,’ whether something physical like a beard or something abstract like a budget.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Apr 12, 2013 @ 21:35:24

    Even though I did some etymological exploring on my own and think I’ve disproved my own theory, it still seems to me that in some way, somehow, “curt” and “curtains” should be related. I suppose it’s only that in my formative years curtains always were short. Draperies were long, but sometimes were cut short in order to be made into curtains. And of course, to tell the villain it’s “curtains for him” always meant his life was about to be cut short.

    In any event, “curt” is a word I see relatively frequently, usually when exchanges with politicians, spokespeople, agents, handlers and Charlie Sheen are being reported. It’s a very useful word, and interesting to know its background.

    What tickles me most about de Botton’s sentence isn’t the sentence itself, but my impulse to re-write it with three discrete changes. That brings us to another word that begins with the letter “c” – chutzpah. 😉


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Apr 12, 2013 @ 21:47:59

      This is a case where your associations between curtain and the similar-sounding curt tempted you into the realm of folk etymology. As I think you’ve found out, curtain has a complicated and not always clear history that’s outlined at

      Finding that curtain is related to court and its doublet cohort may compensate you for the loss of the links you fantasized.


      • shoreacres
        Apr 12, 2013 @ 21:55:59

        Yes, indeed. That link is exactly where I landed, and it disabused me of my idea that there was a relationship between curt and curtain (though I confess I still feel as though there should be.)

        Folk etymology is a pretty interesting concept. And I can’t help but wonder if some people’s use of “wrong” words might not be related to the fact that they sound “right”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

If you encounter an unfamiliar technical term in any of these postings, check the Glossary in the bar across the top of the page.
©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
%d bloggers like this: