• tortuous •
Pronunciation: tor-chu-wês • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. (Concrete nouns) Full of twists and turns, full of bends, winding. 2. Circuitous, devious, tangled, not straightforward. 3. (Abstract nouns) Long and complicated, highly involved.
Notes: The spelling of today's adjective is often confused with torturous with an R, which can only mean "causing extreme mental or physical pain". Roads cannot be torturous unless you fall out of a car onto one. Tortuous comes with an adverb, tortuously, and a noun, tortuosity.
In Play: The physical sense of today's Good Word applies only to roads and paths: "I got lost on the long, tortuous road to I. Malone's cabin in the backwoods of Pennsylvania." We are much more likely to encounter this word in its abstract sense: "I got lost in Lyda Cain's tortuous description of her family tree and dozed off."
Word History: English nicked tortuous from Norman French. The Normans had modified it from Old French tortuous, inherited from Latin tortuosus "full of twists, winding". The Latin adjective came from the noun tortus "a twisting, winding", a noun usage of the past participle of torquere "to twist, wring, distort". The Latin verb derived from the PIE root terkw-/torkw- "to twist". This PIE verb became tarku "spindle" in Sanskrit and, in Greek, trepein "to turn", borrowed by English as trope "a turn of phrase". The base of Latin torquere turned up in many words borrowed by English. They include queer, thwart (via Old Norse thverr), torch and, of course, torture and torment. An odd fellow among these is nasturtium, the flower. This word was borrowed from Latin nasturtium, apparently originally a compound comprising nas- "nose" + tort-are, the frequentative of torquere. The flower apparently came by this name for its nose-twisting pungent aroma. (The comparison of tortuous and torturous was suggested by our many-time contributor Sue Gold, who thought we all should be aware of it.)