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A 'blunt' statement is when someone says things to the point and factual. But wouldn't 'sharp' (or some other word that implies frankness or sharpness) be a better word than 'blunt'? As blunt has the meaning that it is not sharp. When someone says something that is not direct or something soft (and if I am to make phrases or rules in English) then I am more likely to use 'blunt' for such a thing. All I am saying is the real meaning of the word is not appropriate(actually opposing) for the phrase. Being direct is never 'soft' and can hurt and blunt real meaning is more close to 'soft' and cannot hurt you (compared to a sharp object).

Blunt:
(of a cutting implement) not having a sharp edge or point. "a blunt knife"
(of a person or remark) uncompromisingly forthright. "a blunt statement of fact"

Etymology here points to some interesting meanings and usages but none quite explain the usage in phrases .

Edit: what I am trying to say explained better in comments by other users

  • "why blunt means what it does, when it doesn't sound like a piercing effect"

  • The most common, physical meaning of 'blunt' is 'dull', 'rounded', or lacking edges - the antonym of this context is, as you say, 'sharp'. But when 'blunt' is used more metaphorically to mean 'direct' or 'unnuanced', the antonyms are very different.

Also "Blunt knife hurts more" is creepy thinking and language usages do not take shape on those lines. It is usually simple popular opinions that turn to usages/phrases.

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11 Answers 11

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Confusingly, someone can be both 'sharp' and 'blunt', they are not opposites.

'Sharp'-ness of intellect refers to how acute someone's understanding is, how readily they acquire information, and so on, close in meaning to intelligence. The general metaphor here is "cutting through" complexities and confusions, separating things, perhaps like someone clearing a path through the forest.

'Blunt'-ness of manner refers to a lack of diplomatic skill, lack of politeness in delivering positions, and so on. This relies upon a different metaphor, the idea that a blunt instrument tends to hurt more than a sharp one (think of a surgeon using a blunt knife). Both cut, perhaps equally effectively, but one does so more painfully than the other.

For example, I imagine many military generals are both sharp assessors of circumstance and blunt deliverers of instructions: they cut through the fog of war as if with a sharpened rapier, and deliver their instructions like the blows of a hammer.

On the other hand, many minor imperial courtiers I suspect were not at all sharp in their understanding, but they would also never dare to be blunt within the palace walls: they lack the sharpness to extricate themselves from palace intrigues, but could never bruise the ego of courtiers with a thuggish blow.

Of course, more commonly a sharp person will know that being blunt is usually counterproductive and be able to hold their tongue or deliver their cutting message without bluntness.

Naturally, due to the work of editors, you rarely see the two analogies written close to each other in real life as they are above. That would expose the genuine ridiculousness of these two metaphors co-existing in a single language.

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    Accepted as answer. How ever I don't think I can agree with "the idea that a blunt instrument tends to hurt more than a sharp one". Sharp always hurts more when compared. Physically and in sentences. eg: " A sharp statement" vs " A blunt statement". Talking about the surgeon using a blunt knife, we are using our intelligence citing an unlikely scenario to push up blunt. In case of a hammer breaking the skull. Here sharpness has no place for comparison. Hammer is not for killing. Here too if we add a sharp edge to a heavy hammer then it does the job better if killing is the intention. Jun 15, 2023 at 10:20
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    @BlueClouds These expressions arose at a time when most people sharpened their own knives, axe blades, etc. If you are using a tool designed for cutting, having a sharp blade is much more efficient than a blunt (dull) one - you do a lot less collateral damage to the tissue, wood, cloth, etc. around what you are trying to cut. If you are speaking to someone, you can be precise - and say unpleasant things but in a way that hurts only and specifically the topic, or you can be blunt, and hurt every other feeling connected to the topic.
    – Kirt
    Jun 15, 2023 at 15:53
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    Sharp can also mean critical, sometimes to the point of being mean or nasty.
    – KRyan
    Jun 15, 2023 at 17:14
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    "This relies upon a different metaphor, the idea that a blunt instrument tends to hurt more than a sharp one (think of a surgeon using a blunt knife)" — I think that's a very unlikely origin. I would find it much easier to believe that it comes from that a blunt instrument is less precise, more clumsy – lack of finesse.
    – minseong
    Jun 16, 2023 at 0:55
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    Blue Clouds is pointing out that traditionally, sharp things have been considered more painful than blunt (not-sharp) things. This is absolutely true. Nowadays it's very fashionable to raise that blunted sharp things are more painful/dangerous, specifically because this is counter-intuitive. Sharpness is the one that has always been associated with pain, not bluntness. What hurts more: dragging a sharpened steak knife over your skin, or doing the same with a butter knife? How about stepping on a sea urchin vs stepping on a ball?
    – minseong
    Jun 16, 2023 at 1:08
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'Correctness' in English is usage- rather than logic-driven, though most would concede that communicating accurately should be prioritised. Thus the argument that 'a blunt response' can *arguably mean near enough the same as 'a sharp response' (so 'blunt' and 'sharp' are synonyms as well as, obviously, antonyms, having opposite meanings when used to describe cutting edges or points) is not in itself sufficient to warrant a change in practice.

Looking at the first-listed senses of 'blunt' in various non-historical dictionaries (to show hopefully the most common sense), we find:

  • If you are blunt, you say exactly what you think without trying to be polite. [Collins]
  • A blunt pencil, knife, etc. is not sharp and therefore not able to write, cut, etc. well. [Cambridge Dictionary]
  • saying what is true or what you think, even if this offends or upsets people [Macmillan]
  • not sharp or pointed [Longman]
  • Having a dull edge or end; not sharp. [AHD]
  • without a sharp edge or point: a blunt knife [OLD]

So on balance, the default sense would seem to be the physical usage. So some might prefer to select a less polysemous alternative for the 'being abrupt and often disconcertingly frank in speech' (AHD) sense, say 'to the point' (!} ... 'forthright' ... 'bluff' ... 'indelicate' ... ... 'in-your-face' (I've attempted to grade these, least confrontational to most).

However,

1a. All the above dictionaries, plus the historical ones such as Merriam-Webster, carry the 'forthright' sense, listing it first or second, so it is not incorrect per se to use the word with this meaning. 2a. We will meet these different usages, and a knee-jerk reaction will be of little value. 2. The 'forthright' sense when used is often forced or at least strongly suggested by context; thus "A 'blunt' statement is when someone says things to the point and factual [even if this offends or upsets people]". A blunt chisel obviously uses another sense. Many words are polysemous, some very much so. Yes, their use should be judicious, but is very common. Contranyms such as 'let', 'sanction' and more recently 'wicked' are usually seen as interesting rather than dangerous beasts.

  • 'Blunt' when applied to speech ([Collins] overlaps in meaning with 'clarity', being the opposite of 'over-elaborate / [overly] euphemistic' (https://www.thefreedictionary.com/blunt) has 'straightforward and uncomplicated' as one subsense). And 'blunt' is defined as meaning 'direct' in say Merriam-Webster: blunt: 'being straight to the point: direct'
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  • sorry I changed 'clarity' in question with 'directness'. And that is what I really meant(directness). But your answer touches it well Jun 14, 2023 at 10:39
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    however, directness always comes with clarity and indirectness less clarity. Or I thought so. Jun 14, 2023 at 15:21
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    You can be direct and totally mistaken, or direct and seeking to deceive. 'Clarity' works on different levels. itself being polysemous (intelligible communication vs transparent [to scrutiny] communication. Jun 14, 2023 at 16:29
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You seem to somehow have picked up the notion that blunt has a positive connotation based on "to the point and factual".

For most users however, blunt has a pretty negative connotation, and the appreciation of the supposed clarity is dwarfed by the sense of shock a really blunt statement can cause.

A blunt version of this answer could have been: you misread your dictionary, try harder!

I'm Dutch, and the Dutch have a reputation of being blunt. That is as good as never seen in a positive way, except by the Dutch, who will tell you they are "to the point". And they continue to smugly wear their bluntness as a badge of honor...


Addendum, after the question was changed:

Directness can be blunt, but it doesn't have to be. If directness is rude, it is blunt, but if it is still within socially acceptable boundaries, directness can be a positive thing as well.

So, blunt is usually direct, but directness is not always blunt.

Suppose I ask a bar tender for a cup of coffee.

A polite negative response could be "I am so sorry, but we clean the coffee machine at 7 and we do not serve coffee anymore after that time."

A direct, but acceptable, negative response could be "Sorry, no can do. The coffee machine has been cleaned already."

A blunt response could be "No way, it's past 7."

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    Blunt is no way close to soft, and has no relation to it whatsoever. It always has a negative connotation, and it is opposed to sharp (with sharp being the positive of the two!) Blunt means "broken, because it's supposed to be sharp". "Blunt force trauma" is the description of someone being hit with a hammer, not someone being poked with a soft object.
    – oerkelens
    Jun 14, 2023 at 13:44
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    blunt force means not with a sharp object. hitting with a sharp object is likely to cause even more damage. Yes blunt in itself does not mean soft. But when compared to sharp, it is softer in terms of the damage. Not sure about the negative or positive aspect of the words though. Jun 14, 2023 at 14:05
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    I'd rather cut myself with a sharp kitchen knife than hit my finger with a hammer (and I've done both). The pain and damage to the finger is minimal in case of the cut (and a sharp knife causes less damage than a blunt knife!) whereas the hammer may cause internal bleeding, broken bones and more. There really is no way you will convince anyone that "blunt" means "less damage" or "not as bad". It is bad, is is negative, and the usage you describe in your question is absolutely befitting.
    – oerkelens
    Jun 14, 2023 at 14:11
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    Then there is just the little detail left that @EdwinAsworth mentions in their answer: a sharp response can be a blunt response - sharp and blunt can, in a way, be synonyms :)
    – oerkelens
    Jun 14, 2023 at 14:20
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    Is it not strange that 'blunt' and 'sharp', which are, when qualifying nouns referring to cutting blades, antonyms, are not far off from being synonymous when they qualify nouns referring to spoken or written remarks? I suppose it much be because, well, would you prefer to be struck with a blunt instrument or a sharp one? As has already been said, bluntness is associated with directness in critical remarks: compare "that was not the best meal I ever had" with "that was a bad meal". Use of short words is characteristic of bluntness.
    – Tuffy
    Jun 14, 2023 at 15:56
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I would think a sharp answer would connote cleverness, or some sort of double meaning, whereas a blunt message doesn't leave room for very much interpretation.

I think this follows the idea of a blunt instrument, which is thought of getting the job done with little finesse.

In conversation, sharply carries the message of irritation or displeasure. Ignoring the thought that adverbs in quote attribution are a Cardinal sin: "Yes it is," she said sharply. ... When I read that, I think she is angry. "Yes it is," she said bluntly. ... Which I think the response isn't emotional but very direct with no room for equivocation.

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"A blunt weapon" is often used for describing the weapon type rather than an individual weapon state. A baseball bat is a blunt weapon. That does not mean that it cannot be wielded deadly, it means that it accurately conveys the force that is put into it and not much else, as opposed to an edged or pointed weapon.

Saying something bluntly means that the force it carries is due to its plain content, not due to rhetorical devices or an artificially added edge. And it is spoken with confidence in the weight it carries.

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  • This is a satisfying answer. Here blunt is used instead of 'flat or plain'. Though nothing stopped the 'makers' from using those words itself( eg: 'he made a flat statement' ). Blunt is a less obvious choice here from this perspective. But still can fit the bill. Jun 15, 2023 at 6:44
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    @BlueClouds I don't agree with the nuances: "flat" in my book means pointedly dispassionate while "blunt" means with its own force. A gut punch described as "blunt" is different from one described as "flat", and "plain" is too neutral to convey the same meaning. "matter-of-factly" is sort of a middle ground since it also conveys a real or pretended reserve of judgment. English has a wealth of almost but not quite entirely redundant ways of expressing things.
    – user481862
    Jun 15, 2023 at 10:45
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    I always took it to mean blunt as in you feel the full force of a blunt weapon the same way you feel the full force of a blunt opinion. Whereas something sharp doesn't transmit force to you the same way.
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 16, 2023 at 1:18
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Why blunt means what it does, when it doesn't sound like a piercing effect?

Because blunt tools cannot be controlled very finely. If you're carving with a blunt knife, you're likely to produce something coarse and ugly.

Take a look at your definition: "uncompromisingly forthright." Normally when delivering bad news or criticism, people will compromise by using well-crafted language, carefully-selected words, ornate circumlocutions, a delicate indirect approach — crafted wordplay to lessen the blow from what they're actually saying. A blunt tool cannot accomplish this kind of finesse.

Dull can have the same meaning as blunt for the same reason.

The most common, physical meaning of 'blunt' is 'dull', 'rounded', or lacking edges - the antonym of this context is, as you say, 'sharp'. But when 'blunt' is used more metaphorically to mean 'direct' or 'unnuanced', the antonyms are very different.

Sharp is intentionally or directly painful. Usually, sharp (of a person) means intelligent. All of this makes sense because it follows from the metaphor of an intentionally sharpened and thus precise and dangerous tool.

When blunt is used metaphorically to mean direct, it typically implies that the speaker's negligence, apathy, or ineptitude is to blame for why their words are so unembellished. There's no display of fine craftsmanship.

You're right that the antonym of this meaning of blunt is not sharp, but the two words are not synonyms either.

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I agree with you. I always thought that blunt was a poor metaphor here, and that sharp is more appropriate. So I would never use the former. Just because a linguistic usage is established doesn't mean that you have to adopt it—or that it doesn't deserve to die out (as inflammable has nearly done and quite in the sense of somewhat should do). Unfortunately, we are stuck with sanction, as a noun, referring to a prohibition or restriction, opposing its sense as a verb. Since the noun is so useful, and there are plenty of alternatives for the verb (e.g. permit, allow, tolerate, agree to), my guess is that the former will persist, and the latter will die out.

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Blunt also has the meaning 'coarse'. The meaning of 'blunt' given here is "Rough in manners of speech". Which could be interpreted as "Not so sharp in manners of speech". eg: "The blunt admission that he had never liked my company".

Another possible answer is about what a "sharp statement" mean as opposed to a "blunt statement". But then these two are not opposing each other, rather one increasing the intensity over the other. Here it states that a sharp statement can cause hurt and is intended to hurt. Where as a blunt statement is direct but is not intended to hurt and is less likely to hurt(it could, but not intended). Both these statements are equally direct but the intention and the result varies in degrees just like the real meaning of these words do. Sharp hurts more, blunt hurts less.

"Blunt knife hurts more" is creepy thinking and language usages do not take shape on such obscure scenarios. It is usually simple popular opinions that turn to usages/phrases.

The statement that blunt force hurts more does not hold true in this context because a hammer is not intended to be sharp and hence no comparison possible. Where as an axe or knife is sharp and deteriorate to become blunt. Hence the comparison matters here and blunt is supposed to be less effective than sharp. Or softer than sharp and this is carried on to the usage in phrases. Again, here it is not an antonym, sharp does more(hurt) than what blunt does.

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    This matches most with my understanding. A "blunt" comment is factual but unsoftened -- it may still hurt with its content, it may even be intended to hurt, but is usually not intended to hurt, just to be honest. A "sharp" comment is always intended to hurt and usually contains an insult or something that may not be true.
    – Miral
    Jun 15, 2023 at 3:07
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Iots are from Id - I am most certain by following logic, that being blunt is being like a dull blade when cutting into your flesh. Sure it’s not as efficient but it’s way more painful as the dull edge tears into the skin and muscles, hemorrhaging blood vessels etc. Also, you could think of it as a blunt weapon like a club or hammer; yes it may take a few extra blows, but it will stun you easily and can smack you to bits with the right force.

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    Jun 15, 2023 at 5:16
  • @Bebop That is a good enough reason. But is this the reason why this usage came into existence is what I am wondering. It could be. In the answer we are trying to project blunt as more dangerous and impactful than sharp. The hammer example does not hold true though as it cannot be sharp and hence we cannot compare. Blunt knife can be compared as you explained. Jun 15, 2023 at 6:32
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The OED gives the etymology of “blunt” as:

Etymology unknown: found in Ormin c1200, in a sense which has suggested some connection with Old Norse blunda to doze, [but very unlikely to be so]. Other suggestions are that blunt might be … a nasalized derivative of a Germanic root blut-, whence Old Norse blaut soft, weak, modern German blosz naked, Frisian blat, bleat naked, Old English bléat wretched. But in the present state of the question these are mere conjectures, having no contact with the history of the word.

The derivation from blut- is attractive in the sense that the blunt comment does not come with any adornment, but it can only be speculation.

In its earliest form, we have no connection with sharpness, rather

A. adj.

1. Dull, insensitive, stupid, obtuse: said, it appears, originally of the sight, whence of the perceptions generally, and the intellect. (Now generally with some antithesis to sharp)

c1175 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 16954 Unnwis mann iss blunnt & blind. Off herrtess eȝhe sihhþe. [a stupid man is blunt and blind …]

[The antithesis to sharp, which is probably a red herring for the purpose of the OP’s question, does not appear for another 200 years:

2.a. Of an angle, edge, or point: Not sharp, obtuse.

1398 J. Trevisa tr. Bartholomew de Glanville De Proprietatibus Rerum (1495) xii. xviii. 426 The capon is more cowarde of herte..his spores ben made blonte.

Another 150 years gives us the figurative use:

1562 J. Heywood Sixt Hundred Epigrammes lix, in Wks. sig. Ddv Great diffrence betweene blount woordes and sharp swoordes.

However, this does not carry the same idea as the modern “speaking bluntly” – it alludes the real damage that words and swords do. ]

In the late 15th Century, we have

†4. a. Rude, unpolished, rough, without refinement. Obsolete or archaic.

1477 T. Norton Ordinall of Alchimy vii, in E. Ashmole Theatrum Chem. Britannicum (1652) 106 In English blunt and rude.

a1522 G. Douglas in tr. Virgil Æneid (1957) i. Prol. 314 Thocht myne be blunt, his [sc. Vergil's] text is maist perfyte.

1530 J. Palsgrave Lesclarcissement 306/2 Blont in maners or rude—rude.

Only a little later, there is more suggestion that the “naked/without adornment” sense was still in use:

†3. Barren, bare. Obsolete.

1553 G. Douglas tr. Virgil Eneados xiii. vi. 227 The large planis..Stude blunt [MSS. & ed. 1874 blowt] of beistis, and of treis bare. [The great plains… stood blunt of beasts and bare of trees.]

And it takes little to see the connection between these two nuances.

At the end of the 16th century, we have what is the current meaning of the word “blunt” in the sense that the OP asks:

5. Abrupt of speech or manner; plain-spoken; curt; without delicacy; unceremonious.

1590 R. Greene Neuer too Late i. 51* One blunt fellowe amongest the rest that was playne and wythout falshoode, tolde her the whole cause.

a1616 W. Shakespeare Henry V (1623) iv. vii. 174 By his blunt bearing, he will keepe his word.

And we see that “without delicacy” incorporates the rude and the unadorned.

The idea of sharp has taken a backseat in the development of the word and should be disregarded.

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While 'blunt' is a valid expression of directness?

Blunt comes off as negative:

I would use 'honest' 'frank", 'direct', 'straight forward'.

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    The question was less about synonyms to convey this meaning and more about why blunt means what it does, when it doesn't sound like a piercing effect. Jun 14, 2023 at 19:20

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