A long time ago, in the comic strip B.C. by Johnny Hart, a caveman picked up a trumpet-shaped piece of wood. He blew into it. It went “BLUNT!” He looked at it and said, “I’ve invented the blunt instrument.”

Blunt isn’t often applied to sounds, but it does have a good sound for what it means, doesn’t it? With the blowing, blasting bl and the abrupt unt?

What does it mean, though?

If I call a person “a bit of a blunt instrument,” I may mean that the person is dull, i.e., not too bright…

Hmm, notice the seamless shift from tactile to visual metaphor. Let’s say not too sharp, or not too acute, shall we? But more often when I describe a person as “blunt” or say they’re “being blunt,” I mean that they are not sugar-coating their opinions…

Hmm, that’s a shift to taste-based metaphor. I mean that their opinions come without padding…

Which is weird, because padding tends to be blunt – put some on a knife and see.

I don’t mean that what they say isn’t cutting, doesn’t hurt, doesn’t draw blood (figuratively); in fact, bluntness often does all three, in spite of its being the literal opposite of sharpness. But a person who is cutting is deliberately trying to hurt, whereas a person who is being blunt is just being direct, plain-spoken, et cetera.

Except when they are trying to hurt, even if they’re pretending they’re not. If I see someone trying to be hurtful, I probably won’t call them “blunt” – there are other, better words – but if a person describes himself (it’s not always a guy, but usually) as “just being bluntly honest,” then my experience is that they actually are trying to hurt, but they’re trying to get away with it.

Here’s what I mean. If a person says “I don’t like how that shirt looks on you,” that is blunt, and is probably honest (it’s a statement about their own reaction). But people who say they are being “bluntly honest” tend more often to say things like “That’s an ugly shirt” and “Why do you dress like that? Are you blind or just stupid?” This is not honest.

It’s not honest because it presents one person’s opinions and characterizations of the other – all subjective, based on taste, inclination, and interpersonal attitudes – as objective fact. It’s also not honest because it presents the speaker as objective (reinforced by the insistence that the speaker is being bluntly honest), thus implying that there is no subjective element, nothing that involves the speaker’s relation to the hearer.

A quick lesson in linguistics here: Every utterance – everything you say, write, gesture, etc. – draws on, participates in, and asserts a definition of the relation between you and the person(s) you are addressing.

Often the relationship is well-defined and unproblematic – you’re reading my blog for information and entertainment, for instance, and I’m writing it to provide some, and there’s nothing intrinsically degrading about either position. But there are many times when one person wants to assert a specific status relationship: often to claim a higher-status position, which is to say to dominate, to “put someone in their place,” to assert authority. (On the other hand, sometimes they want to claim a lower-status position, which also has its uses.)

When you say something that you have every reason to know will hurt, degrade, humiliate, or otherwise negatively affect another person, and you make no effort to acknowledge that, to mute its effect, or to accommodate their feelings, you are asserting a dominance relation to them (to which they may well object). If you claim that what you’re saying is simple objective fact, that reinforces and adds to the claim – it implies that your feelings and opinions are unquestionably important, and theirs are not worth considering – and attempts to make the assertion unanswerable. The possibility of treating the addressee as someone who does not need to be abused or demeaned does not enter the discourse, though in any reasonable world it would be the default position. Imagine a doorman at a bar who hits you with a club as you walk in and, when you object, he says, “I’m sorry that you would rather be stabbed! We don’t do that here! It’s a nightclub, dumbass!”

Which brings us back to blunt objects. While the figurative use of blunt has quite a wide range, it is at least all led by the literal sense, which is to say, having an edge or point that is rounded and not prone to severing or penetrating. Right?

So. A wall is not blunt; it’s flat. But a cricket bat is blunt because it has those rounded sides. Is an unattached sheet of plywood blunt? Generally I would say not, but if someone were to hit me over the head with one, I think I would not dispute its being called a “blunt object.” (Unless it’s the corner. The corner of a wall may not cut steak but I would not call it not blunt. I have stitches in my forehead to prove it.)

So blunt is ‘dull’, but only in the edge sense, not the light sense? We can’t speak of blunt light or blunt vision? I guess if we’re being poetic we can…

…or if we’re being historical. Because, not to put too fine a point on it, the original sense of blunt is not just dull but really stupid.

Sorry, I mean not just ‘dull’ but really ‘stupid’. The physical sense, referring to edges, is, as far as we can see, a transferred sense from an earlier sense that meant, as Oxford puts it, “dull, insensitive, stupid, obtuse” – and “said, it appears, originally of the sight, whence of the perceptions generally, and the intellect.”

This is because it seems – we’re not sure, at this distance, but it is distinctly possible – that blunt is originally related to blind. Its sense developed as unable to see, to perceive, and from that to understand; thence, not acute, not sharp; and so on.

And if we extend it to willful obtuseness, deliberate not seeing, then those people who cover abusive behaviour with the protestation that they are being “blunt” are being blunt – just in an older sense.

Oh, one other thing. If you’re wondering about Emily Blunt, Anthony Blunt, and all the other Blunts, and their distant kinfolk the Blounts (Blount is from the same origin as Blunt), that name comes from an old word meaning ‘having light-coloured hair’, and you should be able to guess what modern word for hair colour is descended from that. In other words, they’re not dumb; they’re blonde.

One response to “blunt

  1. And then there are blunts, joints, and spliffs, none of which are sharp. 🙂

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