(1 & 2 of 30 commonly confused words)
If you read that so-and-so-A has made a “coruscating attack” on so-and-so-B (or so-and-so-B’s work), what do you take it to mean?
The report is a coruscating attack on the Government’s welfare reforms and those of its coalition predecessor.
Sunday Express, 29 December 2015.
These three options suggest themselves: a) search me, guv; b) oh, A is tearing into B like nobody’s business; c) A is an ignoramus, and what they actually meant was “an excoriating attack”.
A while back, The Guardian’s Corrections and clarifications column plumped firmly for option c):
“In the following article, Terry Eagleton’s ‘corruscating [sic] review’ of Richard Dawkins’s book The God Delusion may have been withering or possibly even acidulous.”
The Guardian style guide is categorical about the matter:
“coruscating means sparkling, or emitting flashes of light; people seem to think, wrongly, that it means the same as excoriating”.
The Economist style guide notes (with bold items as shown) that: This means sparkle or throw off flashes of light, not wither, devastate, or reduce to wrinkles (that’s corrugate).
You’re unlikely to hear either word in everyday conversation, far less down the pub (unless it’s a pub frequented by lexicographers, journalists, or usage pundits). Both are rare, and typical of arty or journalistic writing.
- Coruscating is occasionally used in a small number of phrases in what looks like confusion with excoriating.
- The lemma to excoriate and its derivatives are about five times more frequent than coruscate.
- Coruscating as an adjective is more frequent in British English than elsewhere, as are its collocations with attack and semantically similar words.
- A Google search for “coruscating attack” and “excoriating attack” shows the second – the “correct” one – in a ratio of 4.7:1 to the first.
Meaning and examples
Coruscating can be a bit of a journalistic trap. British hacks in particular sometimes light on it in order to embellish their prose, occasionally with scant regard for its meaning.
It derives from the Latin coruscāre in its meaning of “to flash, glitter, gleam”.
“Glittering” or “sparkling”, literally or metaphorically, is what it usually means in English. Merriam-Webster has a pithy definition for the metaphorical use: “to be brilliant or showy in technique or style.”
Coruscating is the participial form of the verb to coruscate, but the verb itself is rather rare. (In fact, according to the OED, the word was first recorded in this participial form, in 1705.)
The Oxford Online Dictionary labels the verb as literary, and includes the following example:
Finally, as the blazing star appeared high over the island, the glow coruscated into incredible brilliance and began the nightly display.
Nouns typically described as coruscating are wit, brilliance, a review, a performance, a display, and an attack.
The Oxford English Corpus data suggests that it occurs with less than expected frequency in US English, and with higher than expected frequency in BrE.**
She preserves the steely delicacy and coruscating wit of Wilde’s writing.
… a complete understanding of the resources of the instrument and an acute ear for contrast allowed Liszt to produce a quasi-orchestral palette of tone-colours, lending a coruscating brilliance and variety to both his original music and his transcriptions.
Oxford Companion to Music.
Oops, did I chose the wrong word?
Examples like the previous reflect the core meaning of the word, but what are we to make of its use in these examples?
… the anthropologist and writer John Ryle wrote a coruscating review essay in the Times Literary Supplement , documenting numerous inaccuracies , exaggerations and mythifications in Kapuscinski’s writing on Africa. Guardian, Comment is Free.
Departing SNP leader John Swinney yesterday delivered a coruscating attack on the tormentors within his own party who he claimed had made it impossible for him to continue in office. Scotland on Sunday.
In those contexts it is obviously intended to mean “scathing”, “ferocious” and the like. They seem to be a mistake for the less rare but equally Latinate adjective excoriating.
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excoriate / excoriating
Origins, meanings, examples
While the verb has been used in English to mean “to strip the skin off someone”, i.e. flay them, it has a specific modern medical meaning, “to damage or remove part of the surface of the skin” (images for which I’m too squeamish to show).
It comes from the Latin excoriāre to strip off the hide, < ex- out + corium hide>, and the OED*** dates its first occurrence to 1497, in a work published by Wynkyn de Worde.
Clearly, if you can excoriate someone physically, that is, flay them, you can also do so metaphorically (lambast similarly developed from physical to figurative, and think of “to roast someone or something” in a figurative sense, e.g. This is a movie whose brain belongs in its pants, and which deserves to be roasted for the turkey it truly is.)
The OED defines this non-physical meaning of to excoriate as “upbraid scathingly, decry, revile” and dates its first occurrence to 1882:
How he [sc. Jackson] would excoriate Tilden for his copperheadism.
NY Tribune, 15 March 1882.
Here are current examples of the verb:
Critics excoriating him for other aspects of his film show an equal lack of sensitivity to the challenges that come with highly structured storytelling.
Bright Lights Film Journal, (US).
Talk shows were excoriated in the media and featured in countless political cartoons of the period.
Art Journal, (US).
Excoriating … is the participial adjective from the verb. The adjective typically qualifies attack(s), a crique, a report, criticism, or an editorial.
Throughout the second world war, Aneurin Bevan subjected the line of the Churchill coalition government to excoriating criticism and withering examination …
Sydney Morning Herald Web Diary.
Two coroners launched an excoriating attack on the lack of basic equipment in the Armed Forces yesterday, blaming poor resources for contributing to the deaths of three soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although E. P. Thompson has not been alone in objecting to the work of Louis Althusser, it is nonetheless within his excoriating critique in The Poverty of Theory that one witnesses a prolonged attack on the perceived errors of the French intellectual’s abstract structuralism.
Capital and Class, (US).
A British English issue?
It is worth noting that of those collocations listed above for excoriating, over three-quarters are British English (78%). In other words, those collocations are possibly better known in BrE than elsewhere. That might explain why the confused coruscating ?attack and ?review seem also to be peculiarly British: 80% of examples.
Is this a recent phenomenon?
It seems not. Good ol’ Ngrams throws up an example of coruscating attack from a 1961 Report to the Fellows, Pierpoint Morgan Library, p. 59. However, it also shows a vertiginous rise in frequency of that collocation between 1981 and 2000.
Why are the two confused?
I don’t know, but here are some thoughts. If one were to be uncharitable, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance” as Dr Johnson is reported to have said, would be the reason. Viewed in that light, “coruscating” becomes a malapropism of the “allegory on the banks of the Nile” kind.
But that won’t entirely do: the alternation cannot be arbitrary or random.
First, though clearly miles away from being homophones, they share both an -ating element and a Latinate sound –but, admittedly, not the same number of syllables.
Second, if someone has seen the phrase “coruscating review”, but not read the review in question, how would they know what the phrase meant? Reviews are often negative, so assigning a negative meaning to coruscating as a word to describe a review does not seem unreasonable. In any case, for many reviewers, the bitchier the review the more brilliant it is, at which point coruscating and excoriating easily begin to merge.
Google Ngrams also brings a tantalizing clue to the origin of the crossover – on the basis of sounds.
I could only retrieve this fragment:
On the basis of shared sounds, I had associated ‘coruscating’ with ‘corrosive’ and ‘excoriate’ when it means to flash, like lightning. Hence a coruscating review will be brilliant, but not necessarily cutting.
Australian Book Review, Issues 108-117, 1989.
Overall, it might be worth considering using a synonym to replace either word – there’s no shortage of them –, such as blistering, devastating, scathing, withering, savage, caustic, vitriolic, and whatever else your thesaurus suggests.
A “skunked term” is Bryan Garner’s phrase**** for a word or phrase whose alleged misuse will annoy purists. I suspect that for a (rather small) number of people, “coruscating” for “excoriating” will indeed exude the rank smell of error.
** GloWbE (The Corpus of Global Web-Based English) tends to confirm this. While average frequency across 20 countries is 0.06 occurrences per million words, in US English that figure is 0.03, but in British it is 0.14.
*** Interestingly, this meaning of “mercilessly criticize” was not recorded by the original OED editors in their 1894 entry. The 1993 draft revisions show the verb first used in the “attack” meaning in 1882, and the adjective in 1884. Presumably it was, therefore, too recent to have attracted the attention of the original compilers
**** “When a word undergoes a marked change from one use to another–a phase that might take ten years or a hundred–it’s likely to be the subject of dispute. Some people (Group 1) insist on the traditional use; others (Group 2) embrace the new use, even if it originated purely as the result of word-swapping or slipshod extension. Group 1 comprises various members of the literati, ranging from language aficionados to hard-core purists; Group 2 comprises linguistic liberals and those who don’t concern themselves much with language. As time goes by, Group 1 dwindles; meanwhile, Group 2 swells (even without an increase among the linguistic liberals).
“A word is most hotly disputed in the middle part of this process: any use of it is likely to distract some readers. The new use seems illiterate to Group 1; the old use seems odd to Group 2. The word has become ‘skunked.’ . . .
“To the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important, it’s a good idea to avoid distracting any readers or listeners–whether they’re in Group 1 or Group 2. Thus, in this view … is now unusable: some members of Group 1 continue to stigmatize the newer meaning, and any member of Group 2 would find the old meaning peculiar.”
Bryan A. Garner, Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, 2002.