Abstruse vs. Obtuse
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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