I hate to say it, but—sigh—I’m not perfect. I have yet to memorize every meaning for every word in the dictionary. And it wasn’t until last week with the Kate Middleton baby news/media takeover that I finally learned one of my mistakes—this one regarding the word acute.
acute: being or forming an angle measuring less than 90 degrees
This is the first meaning of acute I learned—back in school when I was forced to accept that numbers and mathematics exist. The second meaning I learned was:
acute: marked by keen discernment or intellectual perception especially of subtle distinctions <an acute thinker> b : responsive to slight impressions or stimuli <acute hearing>
This idea of fine-tuned responses seemed to fit with my general initial idea of the word—that it represented small things, such as angles that were less than ninety degrees. The second part of the definition above especially relates to this. If one has acute hearing (as in the definition’s example), one can hear small sounds.
My mistake of misunderstanding came with hearing this word in a medical sense. For years I had heard about so-and-so suffering from acute such-and-such, as with Kate Middleton’s hospitalization for acute morning sickness. I thought it wasn’t a big deal, that the medical issues were small because that fit with my understanding of the word. When I first heard of Middleton’s hospitalization for an acute problem, I thought it was an overreaction due to her royal status, imagining she would be taken to the doctor for every small sneeze. Then, when details emerged about how severe her condition was, I realized my understanding must be off.
acute: characterized by sharpness or severity
There it is. While acute can mean small, in a certain sense, it can also mean large. An acute pain is a large pain, a severe pain. And I am publicly apologizing for thinking the duchess was being a wuss.
Have you had similar word mix-ups? Let me know in the comments section. We can slap our foreheads together.