(1 & 2 of 30 commonly confused words) A revised & shortened version
If person A makes a coruscating attack on person or thing B, what does it mean?
The report is a coruscating attack on the Government’s welfare reforms and those of its coalition predecessor.
Sunday Express, 29 December 2015.
Three options might 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 concurs.
You won’t hear either word down the pub. (Unless it’s a pub frequented by lexicographers, journalists, usage pundits, writers or arty-farty types. Ah, most pubs in Stockbridge, then). Both are rare, and typical of arty or journalistic writing.
- A Twitter poll suggests that a minority would stet ‘coruscating attack.’
Most people would change it, either to excoriating (41%) or to a synonym of that (45%).
- (See the end of the blog for possible synonyms.)
- The Online Oxford Dictionary alone among dictionaries recognizes the meaning ‘savage, acidulous’.
- For many, it will be a ‘skunked’ term.
- 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.
So what do these words mean?
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’ and some nice examples.
Coruscating is the participial form, and the verb itself is rather rare. ( According to the OED, the word was first recorded in this –ing 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 U.S. 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 these examples?
… the anthropologist and writer John Ryle wrote a coruscating review essay in the Times Literary Supplement , documenting numerous inaccuracies….
Guardian, Comment is Free.
Departing SNP leader John Swinney yesterday delivered a coruscating attack on the tormentors within his own party who…
Scotland on Sunday.
Here it is obviously intended to mean ‘scathing’, ‘ferocious’ and the like. It seems to be a mistake for the less rare but equally Latinate adjective excoriating.
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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 of 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. A current example follows:
Talk shows were excoriated in the media and featured in countless political cartoons of the period.
Art Journal, (U.S.).
Excoriating … is the participial adjective from the verb. It typically qualifies attack(s), a critique, 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 …
A British English issue?
Of those collocations listed above for excoriating, over three-quarters are British English (78%). In other words, they 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. 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 simply 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 was meant? Reviews are often negative, so assigning a negative meaning to coruscating would 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.
What word could I use instead?
The thesaurus is your oyster here: the Grauniad‘s acidulous and withering, and then blistering, devastating, scathing, savage, caustic, vitriolic, and whatever else your thesaurus and malevolence suggest.
A ‘skunked term’ is Bryan Garner’s phrase for a word or phrase whose alleged misuse will annoy purists. I suspect that for a certain number of people, ‘coruscating’ for ‘excoriating’ will indeed exude the rank, decaying smell of error.