Printable Version
Pronunciation: ê-sêr-bik Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: Sarcastic, slightly caustic, (figuratively) sharp, cutting or biting as acerbic humor.

Notes: Today's Good Word belongs to a large family of words borrowed from Latin (see Word History). The verb in this particular family is acerbate "to sour or embitter" which, of course, relates it to exacerbate, whose meaning has slightly shifted. The noun is acerbity [ê-sêr-bê-tee], which can also refer to literal sourness, as the acerbity of a pickle.

In Play: Acerbic usually describes a source of psychological pain to someone, which is why biting and cutting are near synonyms: "One pleasant aspect of the early stages of a US political campaign is that the speeches are not at all as acerbic as they will become months later." Acerbity is often humorous, however: "Michael Moore's acerbic documentaries on the institutions of the US do not please everyone."

Word History: Today's Good Word came to us via French from Latin acerbus "bitter, tart" from acer "sharp", which also went into the making of the Latin word English acrimonious is based. The original root here is Proto-Indo-European ak- "sharp, pointed". Latin acus "needle", which underlies English borrowings like acumen, acuity and acid, also came from this root. We see the same root in Greek akone "whetstone", a tool for sharpening things. In Old English it became æhher "spike, ear (of grain)", which merged with the other ear in Modern English. In Old Norse, however, it became eggja "to goad, incite", something a good point can do. English borrowed this word during the Viking invasions of the 9th-10th centuries as the verb egg as in 'to egg someone on'. (We are thankful for the absence of any acerbity in Susan Lister's suggestion that we run this very Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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