Coruscating Change.

Elisabeth Ribbans has a remarkably sensible column for the Observer that includes explanations from Grant Barrett (from whose Facebook post I got the link):

Grayson Perry’s “coruscating repartee”, a silky head of hair used to “coruscating effect”, and a “coruscating verdict” expected from the privileges committee. Which one of these references from the Observer over the summer prompted a reader to cry foul? Surely, “excoriating” was meant, he said. “Perhaps you could correct it and add it to the Guardian and Observer style guide.”

In early June, the imminent verdict on whether the former prime minister Boris Johnson had misled parliament about gatherings at 10 Downing Street during the pandemic was unlikely to be glittering, so I had halfway reached for the digital red pen to make an amendment. “Coruscating” was, as far as I knew, already in the style guide. The entry I had last read went as follows: “[It] means sparkling, or emitting flashes of light; people seem to think, wrongly, that it means the same as excoriating, censuring severely, eg ‘a coruscating attack on Clegg’s advisers’.”

Then I paused to check, and found the guidance missing. Clearly, I had not been paying attention, as it was deleted in 2022. It seems that sufficient doubt had crept in after a secondary definition appeared in the Oxford Dictionary of English: “Severely critical; scathing”. Conversations with the style team suggest its removal was not so much an endorsement of the new usage as a view that retaining the entry was a bit too hardline.

The word comes from the Latin “coruscāre”; to flash or vibrate. And it has been used to mean sparkling or glittering since at least the early 18th century, with its figurative use following a little later. But language is a living thing, subject to semantic change. Take “pretty”, which started out as “crafty” or “cunning”. The Guardian journalist David Shariatmadari reminds us in his book Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language: “A word’s origins do not reveal its underlying meanings.” He gives another entertaining example, “toilet”, quoting the linguist Elizabeth Closs Traugott’s explanation that its first meaning in English was a “piece of cloth, often used as a wrapper, especially of clothes”. It travelled via several other meanings before taking its current seat.

So far, the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE), with its remit to analyse and describe language as it is actually used, appears to be the only authority to give the fresh definition of coruscating, and I asked its publisher, Oxford University Press, to tell me more. “Like any other new word or sense, ‘coruscate’ to mean ‘scathing’ has become established through increasingly frequent use over a period of some years,” replied Michael Proffitt, chief editor at the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), where collected evidence shows this usage going back to at least to 1995. The new definition was added to the ODE, a stablemate of the OED, in 2017. […]

Proffitt indicated that the definition would be added to the august OED at the next opportunity. “The reason the later sense doesn’t yet appear in OED is simply that we haven’t yet updated that entry. When we do, the team will be able to research in more detail when and where the new meaning emerged, and will decide on whether to add a comment on controversy or confusion surrounding its use.”

Semantic shift occurs for a number of reasons (I’m told this one would come under the linguistic category of “broadening”) and, while it can happen to fill a gap in vocabulary, Grant Barrett, head of lexicography at and co-host of the US radio show A Way with Words, pointed out that – as with the new use of coruscating – the existence of other words that already do the same job is no barrier to entry: “English is rife with synonyms,” he said.

In the case of “coruscating”, Barrett noted it has long been applied figuratively to describe compelling speech or rhetoric. Rhetoric in turn can be positive or negative, and a new usage thus settled on the latter. He also agreed it was possible that to some ears the word simply has a caustic sound to it., which was previously in partnership with OUP in the Lexico website, does not have a second definition on its website, but Barrett confirms it is “one of thousands of new words and meanings” being tracked in its database. […]

It occurred to me that some people might be more vexed about a semantic shift when it arises from a seeming misunderstanding rather than a slow morphing. But Barrett saw no cause for consternation. “Change is normal. It’s interesting,” he said. “Be excited that you caught change as it was happening.”

Barrett is, of course, right. I don’t like the new usage, but the English language does not care what I like, it goes its own coruscating way.


  1. Perhaps the conflation was more likely among speakers who had the same vowel in the COR of CORuscating and exCORiating

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Try as I might, I can’t get people to stop using “ingenuity” as if it meant “ingeniousness.” O tempora! O mores!

  3. “coruscating” as “scathing” seems like a pretty natural extension of the older meaning to me, by way of “casting off sparks” (which tends to be done by things that, applied to flesh, would scathe pretty well).

  4. Reminds me of “it begs the question,” which I hear just about every day in the sense of “it raises the question.” Diehard logicians tried for a while to stem that tide, to no avail. Change is normal.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s all good, because now if you say e.g. “it immediately gives rise to the further question” instead of “it begs the question”, other illuminati will know that you are One of Them. Better yet, you can say “this is surely petitio principii” if you actually mean “it begs the question.” (If you are JWB, you can say it in Greek, to even more coruscating effect.)

  6. David Marjanović says

    the Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE)


  7. David Marjanović says

    Interesting. In Star Wars, the city planet of Coruscant (sc as in muscle) doesn’t sparkle at all.

  8. David E. has made me reflect on the rather sobering realization that it is now a full forty fall semesters since I first read (in translation!) Aristotle, in a class taught by the notorious Platonist Robert S. Brumbaugh (1918-1992). But I don’t think Prof. Brumbaugh assigned the Posterior Analytics or any of the other “logical” works, perhaps because those weren’t his bag, baby.

    It was that same semester, right after some lecture in that class (conveniently located for that purpose), that I wandered through the university’s art gallery and found myself face-to-face with, which had been one of my favorite early-20th-century paintings since I had first seen a color plate of it in an old book of one of my parents when I was perhaps 13. The painting is standardly “subtitled” in English “Principle of Glittering” (=Принцип мелькания, in the original). So my question for hat and the other Russophones is whether “Principle of Coruscation” would be a fair alternative translation.

  9. I am not particularly familiar with either usage personally, so it comes across less like a semantic shift by the uneducated youths who don’t know the technical usage of the term begging the question, harrumph, and more like highfalutin journalists plucking a fancy Latinate word from the dictionary that sounds like it means what they intend it to mean. It has to fit somewhere between “excoriating” and “scathing”, right?

  10. I can’t get people to stop using “ingenuity” as if it meant “ingeniousness.”

    To say nothing of “ingenuousness”.

    those weren’t his bag

    I shouldn’t think that any of Aristotle’s works would be (in) a Platonist’s bag. He might on the other hand have bagged them.

  11. There are probably multiple convergent reasons for the development of the newer sense of coruscating. Besides those mentioned above—such as the similarity in sound to excoriating, or the long history of using the term as a metaphor for an obviously high level of intensity—there is something else that immediately occurred to me. rozele’s comment about sparks alludes to the connection I also see—which is that coruscating is often used to describe fire, indicating (literally or figuratively) heat as well as light. I thought that I had myself used the phrase “coruscating flames” myself somewhere, but I cannot find it in any of my fiction.

    @David Eddyshaw: “Begging the question” started as an incompetent English translation of a marginal Latin translation of the original Greek. I continue to aver that everyone, not just J. W. Brewer, should either quote it in the original or paraphrase.

    @David Marjanović: I thought (back before I ceased to care even a whit about Star Wars media other than the original trilogy) that the visual depiction of the galactic capital fit the name quite aptly. In its first on-screen appearance Coruscant is alight with the spotted glows of its planet-spanning metropolis. The city lights don’t twinkle (much), but the way they are spread across the surface has, for me, a similar effect.

  12. @David Eddyshaw: “Begging the question” started as an incompetent English translation of a marginal Latin translation of the original Greek. I continue to aver that everyone, not just J. W. Brewer, should either quote it in the original or paraphrase.

    I’d go further (if I remember my ‘Introduction to Philosophical Logic’ from 45+ years ago): anybody using the phrase almost certainly doesn’t know its origin; and is almost certainly using it in some vague everyday English sense, so not as a term of art. (This compounds that the English is an incompetent translation of a dubious Latin rendering.)

    Anybody who does know its origin and knows its proper application avoids it for exactly the above reason. Even amongst the cognoscenti, using it is just too hazardous.

    “Smuggling in the conclusion” or “circular reasoning” are perfectly serviceable.

  13. Brett, coruscating flames: You may be onto something there. Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels (1950) mentions “a coruscating blaze of anger”, and it’s a good bet he picked up the word from E. E. “Doc” Smith; the Lensman novels are famous for their heavy use of “coruscating”. If you encounter the word in contexts like:

    coruscating torrents of blinding, dazzling energy

    writhing, coruscating beams of power which glowed a baleful, although almost imperceptible, red.

    a coruscating hell of resistless energy, an inferno which with the velocity of light extended itself into a far-reaching cylinder of rapacious destruction.

    One moment they were outlined starkly in the beam; there was a moment of searing, coruscating, blinding light—the next moment the beam bored on into the void, unimpeded.

    … it’s natural to conclude that it means “fiery, intensely destructive”, especially since Smith uses “coruscating”/“coruscant” only in battle scenes, never for something that’s just pretty.

    I’d assumed the Star Wars planet was named as a homage to the Lensmen, but novelist Timothy Zahn says he just “picked the word that means glittering”.

  14. However, there’s reason to doubt that the Lensmen specifically were a leading influence: according to the Google ngram, coruscating has been about twice as frequent in UK English as US English for over a century, and it’s had a definite uptick starting about 1980, much too late to blame it on golden-age sf.

    Coruscating is a word that’s fussed over almost as much as it’s actually used, it seems to me. British editor Jeremy Butterfield blogged on coruscating vs. excoriating in 2020, suggesting that “For many, it will be a ‘skunked’ term”, and also noting that it’s more frequent in British English than elsewhere, and especially in journalism. Jan Freeman wrote about Taking the shine off “coruscate” back in 2012, linking to John McIntyre (who just wrote about it as a “word of the week”, not mentioning any controversy) and to a column in the Christian Science Monitor.

    Bryan Garner has no entry for coruscating, which indicates that it hasn’t been on the radar of US copyeditors as much as it has for British ones.

  15. Coruscating is a word that’s fussed over almost as much as it’s actually used, it seems to me.

    That’s sufficient reason for me not to use it. de minimis non disputandum est. Or rather: if it’s disputed by the public, it can’t be important.

  16. @ ktschwartz thanks: It’s about time the Lensman series gets the close reading and literary attention it deserves

  17. Mollymooly is spot-on: it doesn’t take long when looking at recent uses of “coruscating” to find many places where it is seems completely interchangeable with “excoriating,” and then after further looking becoming pretty sure — especially when seeing there are other not-quite-on-the-nose bits in the surrounding writing —that they were indeed looking for the latter word but instead came up with the former.

  18. David Marjanović says

    In its first on-screen appearance

    …eh… kinda.

    I completely forgot that scene, though. I must have seen it only once.

  19. mollymooly: “Perhaps the conflation was more likely among speakers who had the same vowel in the COR of CORuscating and exCORiating”

    Apparently not: they’re the same in GenAm but different in RP, yet the conflation seems to be more common on the UK side, or at least UK editors are noticing it more. All current British dictionaries have CORuscating as /ˈkɒr/ (LOT vowel), vs. exCORiating as /ˈkɔːr/ (THOUGHT=NORTH=FORCE vowel) — though I don’t know how reliable dictionaries can be for the pronunciation of a rather literary word like coruscating, which is a lot more likely to be learned by reading than hearing.

    After looking through several older dictionaries that make a NORTH-FORCE distinction, I’m pretty sure exCORiate belongs to the FORCE lexical set, while CORuscating belongs to CLOTH, which when followed by intervocalic r is merged into FORCE=NORTH in much of the US (including for me), but into LOT in RP.

    I used to think “coruscating attack” was simply a malapropism, but rozele’s and Brett’s comments persuaded me that it could be an extension of the original sense. Similarly, an anonymous comment at Jan Freeman’s blog (linked above) said coruscating suggested “the sparks that fly off metal when worked on with a grinding wheel”, so a coruscating attack is like using a grinding wheel on the target!

  20. David Marjanović says

    All current British dictionaries have CORuscating as /ˈkɒr/ (LOT vowel)

    I would never have guessed, and I strongly suspect that native speakers who only know the word from reading wouldn’t guess it either. It’s not like it’s spelled with rr!

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s how I say it (I even do say it, on occasion.) Same in Moravia, moral, coral and florist, though not in my wife’s given name, which retains its Gaelic long vowel.

    My vowel system has been co-rupted by Caledonia, but I think it matches RP in this.

  22. PlasticPaddy says

    You left out ‘orange’. Even if that does not begin with a consonant, it may be that the pronunciation was fixed when it was a norange and not an orange. Or do you pronounce it differently to moral etc.?

  23. Don’t confuse my correspondents with my co-respondents.

  24. David Eddyshaw says


    I did. I don’t like oranges. I prefer to eat florists.

  25. CORuscating belongs to CLOTH, which when followed by intervocalic r is merged into FORCE=NORTH in much of the US (including for me), but into LOT in RP.

    For me, CLOTH has merged into THOUGHT, but coruscating, moral, coral, florist, orange are all LOT=PALM, because I mostly don’t have pre-rhotic merging (hurry-furry being an exception). (Moravia is schwa in the first syllable and FACE in the stressed second syllable.)

  26. For me, unsurprisingly, the first syllables of Moravia, moral, coral, and florist are all FORCE (= NORTH). However, while I could pronounce coral and florist with a LOT vowel instead, and it seemed unremarkable, the same was not true of the words with the mor– onset. I discovered, rather to my surprise, that using then LOT vowel in the first syllables of Moravia and moral was phototactically disallowed! It took me several tries to manage the pronunciation at all, and even after I had forced myself to use that kind of pronunciation several times, the words continued to have an uneasy mouthfeel. I have no idea whether other American English speakers have anything like this phonotactic constraint, or whether it is strictly an idiosyncrasy of my idiolect. It is a very particular constraint, in any case. It does not apply, for example, to the single-syllable word marl, which I normally pronounce with a LOT vowel. However, if I try to extended the coda of marl into a full syllabic /l/, the distinct feeling of awkwardness returns.

  27. Further to ktschwarz’s dog-that-didn’t-bark note about Garner, I checked my trusty MWDEU ((c) 1989), which has no entries beginning either coruscat* or excoriat*, thus suggesting that there was no significant usage controversy in the U.S. to be illuminated/addressed.

  28. Yes, the earliest usage complaint about it that I’ve found was in the Independent in 2004; by 2005 the Economist’s style guide was warning against using “coruscate” to mean “devastate”. (Before then, a couple of style guides had included it only as a spelling issue: one r, not two.)

    But heck, if we’re going to complain about drifts from the original usage, why not go back to the *original* original? From the Oxford Latin Dictionary, s.v. coruscō, ‑āre:

    1 (tr.) To move rapidly to and fro, shake, brandish.
    2 (intr.) To make rapid movements, quiver, shake.
    3 (intr.) To emit or reflect flashes of light, glitter, flash, gleam.

    Only the last of those was taken up in English. Etymology unknown; Wiktionary has some unconvincing guesses.

  29. On checking the pronunciation of coruscate in the Century Dictionary (1895), I was surprised to find that the first-listed pronunciation had penultimate stress: co-RUS-cate. When did it change? Turns out, verbs in -ate were formerly stressed on the penult if it was a closed syllable, as per Anglo-Latin stress rules: e.g., alternate (verb), contemplate, illustrate were stressed al-TER-nate, con-TEM-plate, il-LUS-trate by Samuel Johnson. But the stress shifted to the previous syllable in the 19th century. The OED was well positioned to observe this change in progress, describing it in the entry for contemplate (1893):

    Byron, Shelley, and Tennyson have both modes, but the orthoepists generally have conˈtemplate down to third quarter of 19th c.; since that time ˈcontemplate has more and more prevailed, and conˈtemplate begins to have a flavour of age. This is the common tendency with all verbs in -ate. … [the] shift to the antepenult is recent or still in progress, as in … alternate, compensate, concentrate, …, all familiar with penult stress to middle-aged men.

    The revision (2019) puts it all firmly in the past:

    … its shift to the antepenultimate is sporadically evidenced from the later 18th cent., but only became the rule in the late 19th or even 20th cent. (with 20th-cent. pronouncing dictionaries giving only first-syllable stress).

    Much more detail in Piotr Gąsiorowski, Words in -ate and the history of English stress.

  30. Fascinating, I had no idea!

  31. David Marjanović says

    Also on here. Odd that I’ve never read it.

  32. I found the word in a novel I was reading today, misspelled corruscate, which suggests that the American author pronounced it with LOT and initial stress.

  33. “I the Trinity illustrate,
    Drinking watered orange-pulp;
    With three sips the Arian frustrate,
    While he drains his at one gulp.”

  34. The “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” is from 1842 and thus fits neatly into the timeline. Of course, the best-known bit is this:

    There’s a great text in Galatians,
      Once you trip on it, entails
    Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
      One sure, if another fails

  35. Surely corruscate rhymes with corrugate? Good for doggerel-producers to keep in mind.

  36. And come to think of it, I had a grade-school teacher (1950s) who said “ilLUStrated.” She was old and talked “country.”

  37. David Marjanović says

    Twenty-nine district damnations


  38. Woops, that’s what comes of lazily copying an online text. Fixed, thanks.

  39. David Eddyshaw says


    Seems likely: though Browning himself is known for at least one famous misapprehension about the meaning of common words …

    (I can’t abide Browning myself, but am magnanimously prepared to allow others their mystifying pleasures.)

  40. Interesting; what is it about him you can’t abide? He can certainly be prolix, but he has a lively style.

  41. PlasticPaddy says

    When he is not being precious:
    One who never turned his back but marched breast forward,
    Never doubted clouds would break,
    Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph,
    Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better,
    Sleep to wake.

    No, at noonday in the bustle of man’s work-time
    Greet the unseen with a cheer!
    Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be,
    “Strive and thrive!” cry “Speed,—fight on, fare ever
    There as here!”

  42. David Eddyshaw says

    what is it about him you can’t abide?

    Alas, I cannot explain the antipathy.

    (This, of course, is why I generously permit others to like him: if I could explain it, I would naturally denounce their lapse of taste, with copious examples of Browning’s abiding not-quite-the-thingness. Sadly, it is not to be …)

  43. I can’t abide Browning myself

    damn, and here i was hoping not to be the only one whose response was “but have you tried it with someone else?”

  44. David Eddyshaw says

    “I can see Rudyard Kipling at the back. Stop that, Rudyard! You’ll go blind!”

  45. Browning? I enjoy the standards about a last duchess, a bishop ordering his tomb, Caliban, and Fra Lippo Lippi (no, not the Norwegian band). A fine sense of colour and location, a dramatic depth to relish, and some pleasing alliterations.

    Confusion over a nun’s undergarments? Anything can be forgiven. Once.

    We must be accommodating, for a man who kept pet geese named Quarterly and Edinburgh. “You’d know, as you hissed, spat and sputtered, / Clear cackle is easily uttered!” “Let the long contention cease! / Geese are swans, and swans are geese.” (A heartwarming anti-essentialism, eh Stu?)

  46. @Noetica: It wasn’t undergarments, but pudenda. Anyway, I think she must have known.

  47. Of corporate. Browning thought the word referred to some item of less visible clothing, right? Not the nun’s cunt.*

    * See Confucius on the rectification of names.

    Or am I wrong? Some sources speak of a nun’s headdress. Yes, that seems more likely. But his thinking seems to have been vague. When reference fails, what’s a Victorian poet to do?

  48. Then owls and bats,
    Cowls and twats,
    Monks and nuns, in a cloister’s moods,
    Adjourn to the oak-stump pantry!

    It’s well to remember: we’re talking about a poet who not only had pet geese that he called Quarterly and Edinburgh but also proclaimed that geese are swans, and swans are geese. Is he likely to be any more clear-headed about ecclesiastical attire?

    On geese I actually prefer Tennyson, who as we all know made good metaphorical use of them for the improvement of poetic diction. ” ‘The kicking of the geese out of the boat‘, which Hallam Tennyson obligingly glossed, ‘i.e. doing away with sibilations’.” Ah, those Victorians …

  49. When it comes to quoting Browning, I’m on the lookout for occasions to exclaim, “Irks care the crop-full bird? Frets doubt the maw-crammed beast?”

    To be sure, I taught for twenty years at a college founded by a devout Browning Society member. I sometimes asked my students to pick her out of the Beerbohm drawing.

  50. In the context of Victorian society, when people would read poetry aloud to each other for entertainment, I see Browning as pure fun. Tennyson, not.

  51. Yes, I greatly enjoy reading Browning aloud. (Just did so yesterday, to my wife. She liked it.)

  52. According to the Wikipedia article for Pippa Passes, Browning said of twat: “The word struck me as a distinctive part of a nun’s attire that might fitly pair off with the cowl appropriated to a monk.”

  53. Yes, that’s right. And the text that occasioned the confusion for him in the first place rhymed hat with twat. In that context, anything could be going on. If hats and twats are to be paired, what may not be paired with a cowl?

  54. Maybe the connection is hoods?

  55. Hoods or heads. Think maidenheads and nuns.

  56. Caul flower.

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