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A word that sparkles by its acid?

When words really don't sound like what they mean, people sometimes use them to mean what they sound like – and this is how language changes.

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I made a minor discovery the other day. A word that I had seen in print many times, and of which I had formed a vague impression, as of a neighbor one encounters only on take-out-the-trash day, actually means something very different from what I'd thought.

The word is coruscating and it means "sparkling." It comes from a Latin verb meaning to vibrate or to glitter.

The American Heritage Dictionary defines coruscate, the verb, thus: "To give forth flashes of light; sparkle and glitter: diamonds coruscating in the candlelight," or alternatively, "To exhibit sparkling virtuosity: a flutist whose music coruscated throughout the concert hall."

I would have guessed from the sound symbolism, though, that "coruscating" involves using some dreadful chemical to clear barnacles from a ship. And a little research shows I was not alone in this.

A writer on a website of the University of Hull, in England, notes: "Figuratively," coruscating "is used to mean 'very clever', 'able', 'vivid'– using the same sort of image as in 'brilliant' and, at its most basic, 'bright.' So to say that someone coruscates, or that he has a coruscating wit, is a compliment."

This writer goes on to say, however, that people often use the word to mean "very hostile" or "savage," and suggests that the word they are reaching for but not quite finding is excoriate. This 50-cent word means literally "to take the skin off (someone)," or, to put it in four-letter Anglo-Saxon, "to flay."

Corrosive may be another word writers have in mind when they use the nonsparkly coruscating, our friend in Hull suggests. This makes me feel I wasn't so far off with my barnacle idea.


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