Printable Version
Pronunciation: têrs Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. (Obsolete) Smooth, burnished, polished. 2. Sparing in the use of words, concise, brief and to the point. 3. Too concise, abrupt, brusque, curt.

Notes: This word is an example of its definition: one concise syllable referring to conciseness. The adverb, as usual, is tersely, and the noun, terseness. The comparative, too, is the terser terser (rather than the less terse more terse) and the superlative is, again, the terser tersest. We find two obsolete words in the past of this word, tersion "wiping" and tersive "cleansing by wiping" that reveal the historic semantic path of this word to today (see Word History).

In Play: The unweighted sense of this word appears in claims like this: "The private school sent a terse notice telling students how to behave at sporting events." The negatively weighted use of this word goes something like this: "Ivan Oder received a terse reply when he asked for the request form for promotions."

Word History: Today's Good Word shows a smooth semantic transition from "polished, absent roughness" to "concise, to the point" to "inappropriately concise, brusque". It all began at Latin tersus "wiped off, clean, neat", the past participle of tergere "to rub, wipe clean", which Latin created from PIE ter-/tor- "to rub", also the source of Greek teirein "to rub", and Latin terere "to rub". In the Slavic languages we find Russian teret' and Polish trzeć "to rub". Welsh taro "to hit, tap" belongs in this family since if you (s)wipe someone hard, it could be taken as a blow. Going back to the days before matches when people had to rub a spinning stick against wood to start a fire, "rub" became "spin" and "bore" in some languages. That is what happened in English, where tor- produced turn and German where ter- metathesized and became drehen "to turn, turn wood". (Rob Towart has earned more than a terse note of gratitude for suggesting today's Good Word and many others over the past decade. Unfortunately, that's all we have space for.)

Dr. Goodword,

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