Abstruse vs. Obtuse

By Maeve Maddox

What’s the difference between abstruse and obtuse?

Both are adjectives.

Abstruse comes from a Latin word meaning “concealed, hidden, secret.” In English it means “difficult to understand.”

Remarking on complaints about the apparent meaninglessness of literary prizes, Jennifer Szalai writes,

Prizes are awarded to tepid, undemanding best sellers everyone reads; prizes are awarded to obscure, abstruse books no one reads.

The NY Times publishes an annual list of “abstruse words.” The list is compiled from the number of times readers click on a word in order to see a linked definition. Some examples of these “abstruse” words: antediluvian, peroration, and shibboleth.

Obtuse comes from a Latin word meaning “blunt, dull, stupid.”

“Obtuse angles” in geometry are not stupid; they are blunt. An angle “greater than 90 degrees and less than 180 degrees” is an obtuse angle.

When botanists and zoologists say that something is obtuse, they mean that it is not sharp or pointed. For example, larch trees have cones that are about one inch long and obtuse at their points, i.e., blunt, not pointed,

When applied to a person, obtuse means stupid, lacking in perception or understanding. In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, Andy uses the word in reference to the prison warden:

Andy: How can you be so obtuse?
Warden Norton: What? What did you call me?
Andy: Obtuse. Is it deliberate?

Sometimes people use obtuse when they mean abstruse. Here are some examples of misuse on a web page that seems to be offering them as examples of correct usage:

They provide a very powerful, but also rather obtuse, set of tools for finding particular words or combinations of characters in strings.

Obtuse language in such documents actually means?

Obtuse lyrics and intricate symbolism.

I suppose the writers of these examples could be calling the tools, language, and lyrics stupid, but I think it more likely that the powerful tools present a steep learning curve. If the language in the document leaves the person wondering about its meaning, then the language is difficult to understand. Finally, since the lyrics are being linked with symbolism, the word wanted is probably abstruse.

An individual who is obtuse cannot understand.
A book or explanation that is abstruse cannot be easily understood.

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13 Responses to “Abstruse vs. Obtuse”

  • mesbah

    Nice Collection,I suppose the writers of these examples could be calling the tools, language, and lyrics stupid,When botanists and zoologists say that something is obtuse, they mean that it is not sharp or pointed.Thanks.

  • Claude Liverwürst

    Three cheers for the word nerd. Hip-hoorah! Hip-hoorah! Hip-hoorah!

  • Dale A. Wood

    In plane geometry, there are two “basic” forms of angles: obtuse and acute. As explained in the article, someone with an obtuse mind is stupid, dumb, idiotic, etc.
    Someone with an acute mind has a sharp mind that is able to penetrate and resolve difficult problems. Just to give some examples of people with acute minds, we have had Socrates, Plato, EUCLID, Archimedes, Confucius, Omar Khay’yam, Isaac Newton, Leibnitz, Lagrange, Goethe, Jefferson, Thomas Paine, James Madison, Einstein, Feynman, and Sagan.
    Notice that I have deliberately named men from a wide variety of countries and continents who have had acute minds.

    As for ones with obtuse minds, those are a dime a dozen, and they could be found by the millions anywhere…
    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In plane geometry, two of the exceptional angles are
    1. the right angle of 90 degrees, and it lies right on the boundary between the acute angle and the obtuse angle.
    2. the “straight” angle of 180 degrees, and it is nothing but a straight line with a point marked on it.
    For example, if you add and angle of 100 degrees together with an angle of 80 degrees, then you get 180 degrees, and that is a straight angle.
    It is also possible to define an angle of greater than 180 degrees, but that is not ususually done.
    D.A.W.

  • Rich Wheeler

    Good article.

    Somebody who describes expressions as obtuse could mean that the words are stupid or foolish. “That’s the most obtuse advice I’ve ever heard.”

    In a more literal sense, obtuse expressions could be ambiguous, overgeneralized, or evasive. “I trust politicians and diplomats to use obtuse words to make it easier to spin their meaning when criticized.”

    Obtuse people render their meaning abstruse when they use the wrong words.

  • venqax

    Can you please give us more examples of people who had acute minds? Examples like that are very helpful but 16 are not enough to acutely make the point. Also examples of obtuse minds would help. Even if they are a dime a dozen, an exhaustive list of a couple hundred would greatly benefit the dialogue here. I’ll start: My neighbor Barry. And you could still say your neighbor Barry, too, because it may be a different Barry. Am I being abstruse?

  • thebluebird11

    @DAW: I was made acutely aware of your obtuseness in listing only MEN with acute minds.
    @venqax: I hear you loud and clear but perhaps you’re abstruse to the intended recipient of the message.

  • Bernadette

    I can honestly say, I don’t believe I have EVER even heard the word abstruse spoken and I know this is the first time I have ever seen it in writing. As a bit of a geek, I look up words when I don’t know what they mean and I’ve never looked that one up! Thanks for always being the source of my “I learned something new today.”

  • venqax

    @bluebird: I think you’re astute. I wouldn’t want to be rude. Should I leave it at that, or would it help if I listed many, many astute people and then a lot of rude people as examples? I wouldn’t want to be abstruse regarding astuteness or rudeness. Come to think of it, we never did get a list of abstruse people…

  • Jean

    This discussion puts me in mind of a delightful tale told about that age when what would in the fullness of time become the British Isles were being invaded by Jutes, Angles, Saxons and other Germanic tribes. Any Scot who knows his history will tell you that when they came to what’s delicately known as “the disputed country” — the north of England and the south of Scotland — all the acute Angles turned north, and the obtuse ones south.

  • thebluebird11

    @Jean: I remember hearing that tale! Of course on this side of the pond we call it a joke LOL
    @venqax: Please compile a list with no fewer than 50 names, must include men AND women from the entire planet Earth, in alphabetical order, with references, in triplicate. This would be helpful, I’m sure, to some people. Just being solicitous here… 😉

  • venqax

    The acute could take a while…the obtuse is ready to go…the abstruse, well, that’s really not clear…

  • wordforge

    @venqax and @thebluebird11: Thanks for all the entertainment! While your lists are most eargerly awaited, I must say none of you was abstruse or obtuse in the least!

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