aptuse

This is a word that means so much it means nothing at all. It’s so shallow it’s profound. It’s like that old (probably misattributed) Yogi-Berra-ism: “Nobody ever goes there anymore – it’s too crowded.”

It’s not just like that, though. It describes that. It’s a word for things that make perfect sense even though they’re prima facie senseless. They’re so obtuse they’re apt.

But it’s also a word for things that are so apt they’re obtuse – things that sound very clever and mind-expanding but are the toilet paper of wit, dissolving if you so much as wipe a tear or blow a nose with it. So aptuse also describes George Bernard Shaw’s famous aphorism “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” The first kind of aptuseness uses loutish-seeming language to license sensible behaviour; the second-kind uses sensible-seeming language to license loutish behaviour.

Does it seem an inapt use of language to have a word that means two contrary things, senses that cleave apart even as they cleave together? Well, this word does not. It has two times two contrary senses, because each of its two contrary senses conveys a contradiction in sense between form and substance.

The etymology of this word is no puzzle, yet it is still an entertainment. Apt is from Latin aptus, ‘suitable, fitting’, from the past participle of an earlier conjectured verb apere, ‘attach, fasten’. The use is used from not use, of course, but obtuse, ‘blunt, of an angle greater than 90˚’, which comes from Latin obtusus, past participle of obtundere, ‘deaden, dull, beat against’. So the two words are attached while their senses beat against each other. They’re mashed in a portmanteau, overstuffed like a Vonnegut blivet.

You may not have seen it too often, but this is a word for our times, don’t you think? So many clever unclever and unclever clever things being said. It’s a good thing it spilled out of my Scrabble tiles tonight so I could confect it for you. It’s a new old word. Use it aptly.

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