• tenuous •
Pronunciation: ten-yê-wês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Slender, thin, delicate, fine (referring to abstract and inanimate objects). 2. Watery, weak, diluted, thin (liquid). 3. Flimsy, weak, lacking substance, as a tenuous grasp of reality.
Notes: Though we should always be tentative about accepting a tenuous argument, be careful not to confuse today's word with tentative in the sense of "hesitant". Tenuous refers to substance (flimsiness, weakness), while tentative refers to timing (hesitancy, delay). The noun for today's word is tenuity, though if you have space to spare, tenuousness will also do.
In Play: Tenuous is not used to refer to slender people or animals but only to inanimate or abstract objects: "A tenuous mist had settled tentatively on the hills behind the house, waiting for the rising sun to scatter it to oblivion." Are you tired of watery? Here is the perfect substitute: "The tenuity of the contents of his bowl left open the question of whether it was soup or bouillon."
Word History: Today's Good Word is a makeover of Latin tenuis "fine, nice, delicate, subtle". This adjective is one of dozens throughout the Indo-European languages based on a root (ten-/ton-) that originally referred to stretching. From our Latin borrowings we have tenacious, tendril, tenon plus all borrowed words containing -tain- (retain), -tin- (continue), and -tend- (extend). Tenor was a borrowed word derived from Latin tenere "to hold". Greek tetanos "rigid" became English tetanus, while tonos "string" gave us tone. (There is nothing tenuous or tentative about our gratitude to Bob Scala for suggesting today's Good Word.)