Tag Archives: asperity


It is a season of much asperity.

Yes, there is, as Samuel Johnson wrote in The Rambler, “The nakedness and asperity of the wintry world.” But there is also, as he wrote another time in the same periodical, much “Quickness of resentment and asperity of reply” – if not in our personal daily lives, then certainly in the larger world. (Thanks to the OED for the quotes.) As we traipse through the precipitation, we could aspire to something much more auspicious: prosperity, sincerity, perhaps a party (or parties). Something to leave a better taste in the mouth.

Taste? To me, asperity has a clear taste, and that taste is the taste of Aspirin. Have you every chewed an Aspirin? It is acetylsalycylic acid, and as such is as sour as ascorbic or acetic acid (vitamin C or vinegar), but since Aspirin also contains cornstarch, hypromellose, powdered cellulose, and triacetin, it has a chalky bittersweetness to it as well, and a texture not made for chewing really. So hard to swallow by itself.

And asperity of speech or circumstance is hard to swallow, and is sour and bitter. But I think asperity tastes like Aspirin just because the words sound the same. I could in other conditions have thought of it as poisonous like an asp, or as thick as aspic, or perhaps as poor as the opposite of prosperity. None of which have anything to do with its origin, and their resemblance to its sense is essentially coincidental.

What cool hell has spawned asperity? Like so many other words, it came to us by way of French – Old French asprete, which in modern French is âpreté – from Latin. The Latin is asperitatem, which is taken from the root asper. That may look like a name (indeed, by coincidence it is: Asper is a family name, but not from the Latin), and it may look like it’s related to aspiration, but it’s not. It’s just Latin for ‘rough’. Rough as a rasp.

That’s a good way to think of it. Take up a rasp in your hand and rub it: it is covered in asperities (yes, you can say that: the plural asperities literally names the things that cover a rasp or any rough rugged surface). It has an asperity of feeling. If you rub it against furniture, it makes a sound with asperity. (Here’s Johnson in The Rambler again: “Our language, of which the chief defect is ruggedness and asperity.” Speak for yourself, Samuel.) And when your significant other sees what you have done to the furniture, you will likely experience further asperity. Which is to say, things will be rough between you for a bit.

What can you do about asperity? The world will always have its friction, its roughness, its points. But it will also have its smoothness, and over time roughness will wear more and more to smoothness, even as other things break and become rough. Winter comes and it is cold; the summer comes and it is warmer. And interim we seek such solace as we may find: pastry, parties, art, repast, pay… there’s always something in the mix. And something more to aspire to.