Last word(s) from England: “perspicacity” and “berserk” (yes, a nutty duo)

perspective-hunting in London

I’m sorry for only getting last week’s word(s) up just now, on the literal eve of my going home for my “working break.” Please note that there will only be two words next term, probably, as there will only be two issues of The Cambridge Student, one at the beginning, and another at the end, of the term. I may continue to (indeed, I’d even love to try, even in the midst of writing up my research project, ostensibly the reason I’m here) and post blog-only words/put up some old ones from the first term, but stay posted, as it were. In the meantime, please see below (as also found on the left-hand side of pg. 16 in the paper):

“The longer one lives, the more perspective one has, at least in theory. As a university student, I confess that I sorely lack it, especially at those crucial junctures in life that involve making Big Decisions (yes, with capital letters, making them Serious). I must thank my friend Colin Thomas for suggesting we look at such matters, or, rather, some “perspicacity.”

This noun comes to us from the Middle French “perspicacité,” meaning “discernment” or “discrimination,” as derived from the classical Latin “perspicāx,” which, in turn, means, “having keen or penetrating sight,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Since roughly the late 16th century, it has meant keen mental insight. As such, the word is thus related to the adjective, “perspicacious,” referring more figuratively to clear-sightedness, but also to someone’s wit or sense of discernment. It shares the same Latin root as does the word “perspective,” namely, “perspicere,” meaning “to see through, look closely into, discern, [or] perceive,” according to the OED.

To have perspicacious perspicacity, therefore, means to have (suspicious) perspective: the Latin root at it all, “specere,” means “to look,” with a similar root for “suspect” (“suspicere,” meaning, “to look up, look up to, admire, esteem”). Hence having perspective means having a strong sense of being able to “see,” life-wise, what is really there.

All that etymological speculation aside, the first recorded usage of “perspicacity” proper comes in about 1548, in the Solace of Soule, by the theologian Thomas Becon (c. 1512-1567), with the line, “Thou shalte neuer by the perspycacyte and quyckenis of thy reason perceyue, howe it maye be possyble.” A slightly later example, from 1663, comes to us in The Parable of a Pilgrim, by Anglican clergyman (the bishop of Ely, actually) and devotional writer Simon Patrick (1626-1707), “The greatest wits want perspicacity in things that respect their own interest.” Patrick met his future wife thanks to this work, who, having read it, sought him out. This gave him a sort of romantical perspicacity, as it were.

To close, as the term’s end-time approaches, I thought it would be fun to mention a very un- perspicacious word, namely, “berserk.” A quick shout-out is due to my friend Faith Tsuruda for bringing it to my attention. As the OED relates, a “berserk” (singular) was a Viking who flew into a purposely ferocious battle-fury (i.e. the “berserker rage” of yore).

The word is Icelandic, probably, and also probably referred to the “bear-sark,” or the “bear-coat” worn while going berserk. “To go berserk” had a slightly more violent meaning back then, but has mellowed out in contemporary usage, meaning more just-plain frenzy and less frantic head-lopping. Sir Walker Scott (1771–1832) is given credit by the OED for the first modern example of the word’s usage, in a note from The Pirate, published in 1821, “The berserkars were so called from fighting without armour.”

I hope you have perspicacity, and refrain from going truly berserk, between now and next term. If you have any word-related queries, suggestions, tips, hints or etymological thoughts, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk. Until next time, take care!”

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