Rosie Right 

Saved by a Word?

Words sometimes have a depth of meaning that boggles the mind. I was reminded of this when I read a Jan. 10 column in The New York Times. In this report Natalie Angier discusses what makes something cute — why, for example, people seem to go crazy over the "cute" baby panda at the Smithsonian Zoo or line up to see the film "March of the Penguins."

The meanings of cute in the Oxford English Dictionary are relatively simple. They include: "Used of things in same way as CUNNING 6. Now in general colloq. use, applied to people as well as things, with the sense 'attractive, pretty, charming'; also, 'attractive in a mannered way.'"

Scientists have studied what Angier calls cute cues that make us think something fits that definition: "These scientists who study the evolution of visual signaling have identified a wide and still expanding assortment of features and behaviors that make something look cute: bright forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait, among many others."

All of these characteristics identified by the scientists are indicative of helplessness, and our response is to protect the cute creatures and help them survive. Indeed, the cute response is very important to the young of a species, including humans.

The result is not only survival but crowds who pay big ticket prices to see baby pandas.

How we chose cute to refer to these qualities is a bit of a mystery. The OED says that the first citation of the word as an adjective comes from 1731, when it meant "sharp, quick-witted." In its more informal meaning described above, it first shows up in 1834.

Wherever the word comes from, it now stands for something that arouses in us a desire to protect, and any person or species that is "cute" has a special advantage.

Lost Words

Even the expert can err. According to Henry Hitchings' review of a new anthology of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, even the famous word maven sometimes missed. Here are two words he predicted would stick with us:

Warray (to make war) and ultimity (the last stage). Anyone heard them lately?

Let Rosie hear from you by mail (1707 Summit Ave., Suite 201, Richmond, VA 23230); by e-mail (rozanne.epps@styleweekly.com); or by telephone (358-0825).

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