Thursday, August 02, 2007


The Latin word curtus has led to some interesting words in English, but it was interesting in itself.

Curtus meant short, but there were intimations of mutilation and breakage lurking beneath the surface. It was a word that might be applied to a castrated bull, a gelded horse, a dog with a docked tail, or a circumcised man. [Gentlemen in the audience may now participate in a group wince.]

By the time this root worked its way into English, it had acquired the meaning of physically short or abbreviated, though the cutting aspect had not entirely disappeared. So we had the following:

curtal (an animal with a short tail)
curtate (shortened or abbreviated)
curtail (to shorten)
curtilage (a small enclosure)
curtipendulous (hanging by a short stem)
decurtate (shortened)

By extension, the English word curt left the realm of the merely physical and came to mean terse to an extreme degree--bordering, in fact, on rudeness.

The word curtain comes from an entirely different source, so a long curtain is not an oxymoron.

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