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In American English, "cute" is sometimes used sarcastically or to mean "clever." An example of the latter is the recent headline "Donald Trump tells Harley Davidson: 'Don't get cute with us'".

I've heard that such usages are uncommon in Australian or British English but may be used in Scottish English. Can anyone help me out with this?

  • Some Americans I have spoken to have expressed surprise at the wide variation in UK vocabulary. I have no reference for this - there may have been a study - but my distinct impression is that US English tends to be far more standardised across society. Yes, some people in Scotland may use "cute" in that way, but don't be surprised if you find plenty who don't. – WS2 Aug 22 '18 at 6:03
  • We are supposed to try to find an answer to our questions through some reasonable amount of (online) research and show it as background effort while posting a question. See the simple dictionary look up shown in the answer by user070221. – Kris Aug 22 '18 at 7:26
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Clever” is actually the original meaning of cute, from acute; pretty is a later connotation. This usage appears to be common in AmE. I couldn't find evidence of cute meaning clever/shrewd in Scottish English.

1731, "clever, sharp, smart," shortening of acute; informal sense of "pretty" is by 1834, American English colloquial and student slang.

(Etymonline)

From M-W,

Cute:

a : clever or shrewd often in an underhanded manner " … he's a true patriot and statesman … and a most particular cute lawyer." —Thomas Chandler Halliburton.

b : impertinent, smart-alecky Don't get cute with me.

From ODO (NAmE informal):

clever or cunning, especially in a self-seeking or superficial way. "she had a real cute idea"

As noted by a few users, the usage of cute meaning clever/cunning has survived in Irish English as explained also in the following extract from Oxford Dictionaries:

Lost in translation. . . so I was (adventures in Irish English)

As a schoolgirl I’d have to translate my mother’s descriptions for bewildered friends – if another child is bold they’re naughty, if they’re cute they’re cunning, if they’re gorgeous they’re kind, and if they’re well able to go they’re self-confident.

The following extract explains how the meaning of cute evolved from clever/cunning to pretty:

  • When the word first appeared in English in 1731, it was a shortened form of acute, the adjective meaning “shrewd,” “keen,” or “clever.” It even had its own opening apostrophe—‘cute—to let you know it had been clipped. .... A “cute remark” back in Victorian England was a quick-witted one. So was the “cute man” in Dickens’ 1841 book Barnaby Rudge. And so was a cute girl. In 1882, the Manchester Evening Mail ran a piece defending the typical American young woman as being just “as cute as the masculine Yankee,” by which it meant she was equally sharp and spirited.

  • You can thank American school kids for the more familiar “attractive,” “pretty,” or “charming” evolution of the term. This confusion of physical and mental appreciation—from the shapeliness or comeliness of a line of thinking to the elegant cut on a garment—misled my friend, who wanted to praise an argument on its brainy merits, into dinging it as trivial and superficial. Once cute’s slang meaning caught on in the mid 1830s, it was used to describe, among other things, small socks, a nice, orderly study room, the narrow and beautiful vasculature of old city streets, and “a French accent … reminiscent of the naughty-naughty twitterings of a Parisian miss on the English musical comedy stage.” Maybe that same bus that shuttles the modifier “smart” between ideas and outfits helped cute migrate from an intellectual value system to an aesthetic one.

  • But in those early examples—the socks, the alleys, the young Parisian—yet another transformation is taking place. The smartness or “just-so”-ness of cute is also manifesting in the size of the noun being modified. In 1941, for instance, Aldous Huxley wrote of a “tiny boy … looking almost indecently cute in his claret-coloured doublet and starched ruff.”* I’m reminded of how Marianne Moore’s poetic ideal—“neatness of finish”—was occasionally misread as a sign of the smallness, the modesty, of her ambitions. Something about being neat and appropriate apparently translates into being tiny: There’s a sense of containment and easy comprehension. By the time Boyz II Men were singing about their “cutie pie” and websites devoted to “cute little kittens” were springing up, cute had become a receptacle for all these related ideas: aesthetic charm, minuteness, childhood, femininity—with a lingering hint of wiliness thrown in for good measure.

(slate.com/blogs/lexicon)

  • 2
    I can attest through personal experience that "cute" is certainly used to mean "cunning/clever" in the Republic of Ireland, e.g. "How did he land a job like that with no experience or qualifications! He's a cute wee fella, that's for sure." – Phil M Jones Aug 22 '18 at 8:53
  • @PhilMJones - good to know, is it a common usage as far as you can tell? – user067531 Aug 22 '18 at 8:56
  • @user070221 also Irish, you'd hear it either as the above, or ocasionally in in a mocking fashion e.g. "aw that's cute" when someone fails at something. – colsw Aug 22 '18 at 12:20
  • @colsw and also “cute hoor” en.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/cute_hoor – user067531 Aug 22 '18 at 12:26
  • @user070221 Yes it is common usage, and frequently in the expression "cute hoor" as you mentioned above. – Phil M Jones Aug 22 '18 at 13:35
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Also Irish. "Cute" is certainly one of those words that has a different meanings depending on the context, and I would say that the intended meaning is also partly expressed in the tone of the voice used. I can say that in Ireland it is used with all the mentioned meanings (attractive, adorable, clever, cunning, scheming, etc.). Perhaps "cute" is not often used in British English because there are simply many other options available. But I would say that people from the UK and Ireland know all the American usages of cute. Keep in mind that people in the UK&I consume a lot of American media (TV, movies, etc). So, although people in the UK&I have particular ways of expressing some things, they also know the American ways. Also for example, although in Scotland and Ireland we have some unique ways of saying things, we are familiar with the standard British English ways of expressing those things. I find the opposite is not normally true. I mean that typically Americans are not familiar with UK&I accents and ways of expressing things, probably because they are not exposed to them very much.

  • Since "cunning" was mentioned several times, I'll note that it too can mean "pretty" (Merriam-Webster: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/cunning). I suspect that it's obsolete, though, because I've seen it used that way only in old books. – Literalman Aug 22 '18 at 19:04

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