Will's words of the week – "perspicacity” & “berserk”

Until next time, take care! 12 March 2010

As a university student, I sorely lack it, especially at 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 from the Middle French perspicacite, meaning ‘discernment,’ as derived from the classical Latin perspicax, which means, ‘having keen or penetrating sight,’ according to the OED.

Since the 16th century, it has meant keen mental insight. As such, the word is thus related to the adjective, ‘perspicacious’, referring to clear-sightedness, but also to someone’s wit. It shares the same Latin root as the word ‘perspective,’ namely, ‘perspicere,’ meaning ‘to see through, look closely into.’ 

To have perspicacious perspicacity, therefore, means to have perspective: the Latin root, specere, means ‘to look.’ Hence having perspective means having a strong sense of being able to ‘see’, life-wise, what is really there.

All that aside, the first recorded usage of ‘perspicacity’ 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.”

An example from 1663 comes to us in The Parable of a Pilgrim, by the bishop of Ely, 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, 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 for bringing it to my attention. As the OED relates, a ‘berserk’ was a Viking who flew into a ferocious battle-fury (i.e. the ‘berserker rage’).

The word is Icelandic, and probably referred to the ‘bear-sark’, 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 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.”

If you have any word-related queries, or tips, please write to willswords@tcs.cam.ac.uk

Until next time, take care!