dull and blunt

This item ran as a Twitter Difference of the Day back in September, and I've been meaning since then to explore it a bit more. My thanks to Colin Fine, who pointed out a Canadian tale of 'the customer isn't always right' story, in which the writer consistently used dull where (British) Colin would have used blunt. Since gradable adjectives are my favo(u)rite kind of word ever, I've been thinking about it on and off since.

'The most important tool' by Simeon Berg,
shared under a Creative Commons licen{s/c}e
I hadn't noticed that British folk talk about blunt knives and not dull knives because Americans can talk about blunt knives too. Hearing blunt knife hadn't bothered me (and I hadn't noticed the lack of dull knives), because I hadn't (BrE) twigged that it means something different in the UK than it means to my American mind. It's one of those differences that can easily hide.

In AmE, blunt is generally used to refer to things that aren't pointy (though they might have been). So, if I poke you with a stick, you would be better off if it were a blunt stick, rather than a sharp, pointy one. Using that meaning, an AmE blunt knife would be one without a sharp tip.

That 'not-pointy-sharp' meaning works in BrE too. In BrE, I could poke you with the sharp end of a pencil or its blunt end. (Stay away from me. I'm clearly in a poking mood.)

But BrE also allows for blunt to be the opposite of sharp when referring to an edge, not just an end. So, blunt knife in that case means that the knife is not good for cutting (whether it's good for poking people with is another matter).

AmE uses dull for the edge, and thus has lexicali{s/z}ed (i.e. put into words) the contrast between the 'edge' and 'end' ways that something can be not-sharp. The chart below shows the nouns that are statistically 'more American' (left, green) and 'more British' (right, green) in the GloWBE corpus. (These are not the nouns that are used most with dull, but the ones that are not used in the other country much. See the 'ratio' column for the strength of the noun's 'Americanness' or 'Britishness' in this context.)  (Dull Tool is scoring so high because 12 of the 18 hits are the title of a Fiona Apple song, which goes 'you're more likely to get hurt by a dull tool than a sharp one'.) The 'more BrE' uses of dull have to do with its 'boring' or 'not bright' senses, which exist in AmE too, but perhaps aren't used as much.



In both Englishes, sharp is the opposite of both dull and blunt in their literal 'cutting' senses. So if we talk about a sharp knife in either English (or a blunt knife in BrE), then it's ambiguous as to whether we're talking about the edge or the tip, but context often lets us know. If you're talking about cutting vegetables, the edge is more relevant; if you're talking about poking people, you're probably describing the tip. Where the context is not enough, you'll have to use more words to make it clear—e.g. The tip of that knife is really sharp. AmE doesn't have that ambiguity in the 'not-sharp' end of its vocabulary: the choice of dull or blunt disambiguates it.



64 comments

  1. > In both Englishes, sharp is the opposite of both dull and blunt.

    Native speaker of InE here. I was taught 'bright' as an opposite of 'dull': bright student, bright day, etc. 'Sharp day' doesn't quite seem to work, and 'Sharp student' has a connotation of 'clever' rather than 'intelligent'.

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    1. Sharp is the opposite of dull and blunt in the senses to do with ability to cut/puncture. Words have different opposites depending on their senses. I've not really discussed the figurative meanings of these words here (except with reference to the table). They have various antonyms. I'll revise the sentence to make that clearer.

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  2. I (BrE, elderly, Southern) would certainly never talk about a "dull" knife - I'd say it was blunt, or that it wanted sharpening. (My UlE husband would say it "wanted sharpened", or "needed sharpened").

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    1. I'm drawing a blank -- which country or region is UIE? (Or am I misreading that and the middle letter's an L?)

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    2. The construction is also in Scottish English. The first time I came to Edinburgh I heard of people who refused to believe that anybody could say 'It needs cutting'. This gave rise to a mock-serious discussion, which ended when somebody identified the Morningside usage.

      [Morningside is a stereotypically genteel suburb of Edinburgh with a much-mocked half-English half-Scottish accent. Think Miss Jean Brodie as played by Maggie Smith.]

      Oh yes, in Morningside side they say 'It requayers to be cut'.

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    3. Anonymous: I'm going to hazard a guess here that Mrs Redboots' husband is from Ulster and speaks an Ulster variant of English. That, at least, is how I interpreted UlE!

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    4. This illustrates the utility of serifs.

      We regular readers knew that Annabel's husband is from Northern Ireland — because she's told us. So I guessed that U probably stood for Ulster. But I couldn't work out what the letter between H and K might stand for.

      Seeing the word written (twice) in Todd's post, it became clear. (How do you spell Duh?) As some decent series would have showed, it's a lower-case L.

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    5. CORRECTION

      As some decent serifs would have showed, it's a lower-case L.

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    6. Yes, sorry - I meant Ulster English. There are times when Lynne's "BrE" for "British English" simply isn't specific enough, since Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all have their own variants, and in many cases different areas of England have their own dialect words, too.

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    7. It seems you might have inadvertently answered a question that's been bouncing around in my skull for a while. A few years ago I noticed (on the internet) that some Americans use the phrasing "needs sharpened" rather than "needs to be sharpened" or "needs sharpening". Although I've been in the US for more than fifty years, I had never heard that before, or at least I didn't notice it. I've seen it many times since. Maybe it was a regional thing, I thought, but then I noticed that it was used pretty far and wide across America. Being that I just found out that it's used in Ulster English, perhaps it's an obscure holdover from early Ulster immigrants to America?

      Side note, saying that something "wants" sharpening seems like a British thing to me. Not sure, but I can't recall evet hearing a fellow American use the word "wants" in that way.

      Sorry if this was too off-topic.

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    8. Ryan, the OED quotes Armistead Maupin in Babycakes (1984).

      His toaster wants repairing, I'm afraid. It died on me several days ago.

      As far as I know, his books aren't filled with British characters.

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    9. Ryan -- the "needs washed" (that's, for some reason, the construction that gets used as the example most often) construction did, in fact, follow the Ulster Scots (generally referred to by their descendants as either "Scots-Irish" or "Scotch-Irish") over the pond, and is most common in certain regions of Pennsylvania/Ohio/West Virginia where those influences were common.

      (I will use "needs washing" and "needs washed" interchangeably, myself, being from the edge of the region.)

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    10. I hear things like "That pump needs fixed" from my neighbors all the time here in rural southern Colorado. If it's Scots-Irish in origin, then that makes perfect sense.

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    11. Pittsburgher here... "needs washed" is fairly common usage around here, as is phrases like "the baby wants fed." Wikipedia says there is also a like + past construction, as in "cats like petted", but I can't say I've ever heard it.

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  3. BrE also has that standard of the murder mystery, the blunt instrument, which was probably never either pointy or sharp. Is that used in AmE?

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    1. It definitely is, and it's also used by actual professionals. Furthermore, there is a figurative sense: a tool of social control that controls with a heavier hand than necessary.

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    2. Yes, a blunt object is one that's used for hitting rather than cutting.

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    3. The associated term "blunt force trauma" is also quite common in North American mysteries and police procedurals

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    4. Further to Lynne's point about hitting, "a blunt object" as a weapon presents an interesting use of the adjective that is entirely conditional on the object's use.

      For example, in a murder mystery featuring a blunt object as a weapon, one might suspect a paperweight, a clock, a vase, etc. And yet if I were asked to describe any of those objects in my own house, I would never use the word blunt. It seems only to apply when the object has been used for hitting.

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  4. Historically, the sense 'unsharp of edge' is a loss in BrE rather than an innovation in AmE. The OED's first quotation is actually 'dull edge(d)' as a gloss for the Latin word obtusus, and we find a dull scythe in George Herbert (1633) and a dull axe in Daniel Defoe (1719). The AmE-BrE split is right around that time. Shakespeare speaks of a knife that is dull and blunt, although the OED entry for blunt says that it is now applied only to objects with neither a sharp point nor a sharp edge, making dull and blunt look redundant.

    What adjectives would be applied in BrE to a dagger or poniard, which is traditionally sharp of point and unsharp of edge?

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    1. Great point, John. (Wish I'd made it!)

      I don't see any reason a dagger wouldn't be 'blunt' in BrE. BrE has both 'blunt end(s)' and 'blunt edge(s)'.

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  5. I'm pretty sure I grew up with "blunt" knife (meaning "not sharp") in central Texas more than half a century ago, so I'm pretty sure at least some Americans used that meaning then. All of this makes me wonder where a "blunt statement" fits in, too.

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    1. A blunt statement makes an impact, but one that's diffuse, badly target(t)ed — unlike a pointed statement.

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    2. Let me be blunt, David: I disagree with your pejorative notion of the meaning of blunt statement.

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    3. If I didn't know you better, Dick, I'd be offended by that 'Let me be blunt'.

      To my ears blunt speaking is code for 'rudeness'.

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    4. I'd have to disagree about blunt being diffuse or badly targeted, or even rude. To me its the opposite, an announcement that the statement is going to be right to the point. That is, a blunt statement is simply direct, without apologetics or concern for possible hurt feelings. Blunt speaking would be statements of presumed fact. Sharp speaking, or sharp, or cutting words or speech could be rude in that it would be personally directed in a matter calculated to cause offense. The anticipatory prefixing of "Let me be," however, opens the door to being rude or speaking sharply in a personal matter.

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  6. AmE speaker here, where NY/NJ shaped my dialect, and both dull and blunt were used for edges, with blunt also used for a non sharp point. And blunt objects were quite often the weapon of choice in murder mysteries.

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  7. This is fascinating - to me (British) dull is the opposite of shiny, not sharp.
    Here, the scissors used by my hairdresser are both sharp and pointed, while those for children are round-ended or blunt-tipped.

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    1. I think your use of blunt for the tip is in keeping with Lynne's original assessment -- what would you say for the cutting blade of the scissors (knife, etc), though? Blunt, dull, or something else?

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    2. Scissors used for cutting hair will be both sharp-edged and sharp-pointed.
      I read recently that blades can be sharpened either by stropping (e.g. cut-throat razors on a leather strop/strap) to straighten the edge, or by grinding, where some metal is actually removed - for example knives and scissors on a stone wheel, or chisels on a whetstone.

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    3. I wouldn't describe a pair of scissors as 'sharp-pointed' unless they were being used in an abnormal way — e.g. to stab someone or to pierce something.

      For me,the things hairdressers use are simple pointed scissors.

      I suppose the difference i feel is that the function of the point in those scissors is to push hair aside, not to make an incission.

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    4. @Biochemist -- right, but what if they're *not* sharp? On both sides of the pond, we agree that pointy tips and slicey edges are sharp, but the difference lies in the word for the poorly-sharpened parts. If your scissors have been used for ages without sharpening and no longer perform their cutting function well, would you say they've become dull or blunt?

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    5. As I said to begin with, dull is the opposite of shiny, so blunt is the opposite of sharp, as elucidated by Lynneguist.

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    6. I agree with biochemist.

      In my speech — and, I've always assumed, in British English generally — dull never means 'not sharp' in the literal sense.

      In metaphorical senses, sharp and dull may be very different — but I don't think we see them as opposites.

      As John Cowan discovered dull used to be an opposite of sharp in British English. But, as biochemist says, the basic literal BrE meaning has changed completely to 'the opposite of bright or shiny'.

      Dull scissors are either 'lacking in shine' or 'boring'.

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  8. So if we talk about a sharp knife in either English (or a blunt knife in BrE), then it's ambiguous as to whether we're talking about the edge or the tip, but context often lets us know.

    Not in my speech. A blunt knife can only mean a knife with a blunt edge. To express the other idea, I'd have to say a blunt-pointed knife.

    And I'd only speak of a blunt end if there was clearly another end which was pointed.

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  9. My CanE experience aligns with the American usage. Dull refers to a cutting edge, and blunt to the tip. So a pair of rounded children's scissors is blunt, but not necessarily dull. A knife might be blunt and dull, blunt but not dull (e.g. a sharp cleaver), or dull but not blunt (e.g. a poorly-sharpened chef's knife).

    For a poking device, I'd use blunt, but I make an exception for pencils, which become dull with use. Perhaps this is because they are still slightly pointed, or perhaps because even though the lack of a sharp tip is the cause, the result is a *dull* output in the vividness sense of the word.

    One also hears of blunt-cut bangs (BrE fringe), which are cut straight across the brow line. Although this refers to an edge, not a tip, I'd use blunt -- I wonder if this is because the term originated elsewhere, or if it's because it's contrasting with a "sharper" angled look... or, perhaps it's just an outlier.

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  10. In Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, the Sherrif of Nottingham (Alan Rickman) has to explain that his threat to cut Robin's heart out with a spoon is worse than with a sword or axe "because it's dull, you twit! It'll hurt more." https://youtu.be/MhfuuKiTcYQ But, thanks to John Cowan's observation above, we don't have to blame Kevin Costner's AmE, we can say that in fact it's proper BrE for the period!

    In my (AuE) family the go-to expression for faint praise is "Better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick." Only after seeing that movie did I start to suspect that this blunt stick is supposed to be worse than a pointy one. Still, if Lynne's aiming for the abdomen, I'll take the blunt one.

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  11. As transitive verbs, blunt and dull are distinct in my speech. For me:

    if you blunt something, you reduce its literal or metaphorical sharpness.
    e.g. blunt the knife, blunt the criticism

    If you dull something, you remove its metaphorical sharpness.
    e.g. dull the pain

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    1. CanE here: I'd agree with you on those. I don't think I'd use either for "criticism" (weaken, reduce, etc. sound more fitting to my ears), but in a pinch I think I'd pick dull over blunt. However, I might say that someone has provided rather "blunt criticism", which would have altogether the opposite meaning to what you've listed!

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    2. Laura, see my replies above to Darla-Jean Weatherford and Dick Hartzell. For me 'blunt criticism' is like a physical attack with a blunt implement — as opposed to using something more pointed.

      So in my speech you can somewhat reduce the sharpness of pointed criticism by blunting it.

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    3. In my (AmE) speech, dulled pain isn't gone, it's just reduced. I'm also struggling with what David has said about "blunt" in reference to statements or speech, though. To me, "blunt" implies that the speaker is not taking any pains to be diplomatic. They are saying whatever needs to be said without any padding...which in some sense is pretty pointed! "I'll be blunt" means "Get ready for some unvarnished criticism."

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    4. Giddy, this shows (I think) that our metaphorical senses are influenced by our literal senses.

      For me, the literal sense of dull is never 'not sharp'. Rather it means literally 'not bright', 'not clear'. So for me a dulled pain has been reduced to numbness by a metaphorical fog.

      I agree with what you say about the meaning of blunt speech. But again it's a metaphor, and my understanding is shaped by what I take the literal meaning to be. It's a metaphorical blunt weapon — even if the yielder of the weapon doesn't realise it's potentially dangerous.

      Where I disagree with you is that saying whatever needs to be said. For me, blunt speech may be blameless, even endearing, but not an act of considered intellectual bravery. I suppose I'd call that plain speaking or some cliché such as saying it as it is or calling a spade a spade.

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    5. I take that blunt criticism is direct because the type of non-sharp it is has an element of flatness to it. A rounded edge is flatter than a pointed one (it makes sense if you think of the end sticking up vertically and imagining the incline). So pointed criticism is less direct because with its point, it can just slide in, slide past, be sly, slide around the point of the statement, while blunt criticism is direct because it's flat; it hits you straight, no careful sliding around the issue.

      I guess this association with flatness is also why we hit people with blunt objects. Both literally and metaphorically, it's better to hit with a flat thing than a pointy thing.

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  12. Wow -- I've lived in the US for 20 years and never noticed this difference. Thanks for pointing it out, Lynne!

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  13. Native AmE speaker (age 20) here: this distinction definitely isn't a thing for my ideolect. I would use both "blunt" and "dull" to refer to a knife with an edge that is not sufficiently sharp; they serve as synonyms. I've never encountered a situation where I'd need to talk about a knife without a tip.

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  14. Whenever a Prime Minister makes a drastic reshuffle of his/her Cabinet the involves a number of sackings, the British press calls it a night of the long knives — echoing the name of the putsch that consolidated Hitler's power through actual killings.

    Some years ago, under complicated circumstances that involved (as i seem to remember) a reception with alcohol and barbecued snacks, an Australian Prime Minister pulled such a stunt. The press gleefully dubbed it the night of the long prawns.

    Now Theresa May has cried out a totally undramatic reshuffle which is the complete opposite. So this morning's headline announces:

    THE NIGHT OF THE BLUNT STILETTO

    Now a stiletto is an unusual knife in that it's designed to wound by piercing, not cutting. So — uniquely among knives in BrE — the opposite of a sharp stiletto is a blunt stiletto. But by the same token, a blunt stiletto can't mean 'a stiletto with an unsharp edge'.

    It helps the pun that a stiletto is also a type of heel, and Theresa may has long been known for her fancy shoes.

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  15. BeE speaker. Realise that i have seen dull knife (and understood it) in American literature but would never use it. I would agree that you take pain-killers etc. to dull pain rather than blunt it. Does this mean that a sharp pain has an edge rather than a point?

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    1. @Rachel Ganz -- perhaps! In North America (though perhaps it's a bit dated?), one might hear reference to having a drink, taking a painkiller, etc to "take the edge off"

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  16. As an American, I've never known there was a distinction between a blunt knife and a dull knife. I would have used both to refer to the edge (though I'd be more likely to say "dull knife" than "blunt knife"). I've never thought about one or the other actually referring to the tip.

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    1. I agree - I would use both blunt and dull to refer to the cutting edge of the knife, semi-interchangeably. As I was trying to think of sentences where I would pick one or the other, these are the 2 that came to mind:

      "Don't use that knife, it's dull"
      "Take the blunt ones in if you're going to get them sharpened."

      I wouldn't refer to the tip of the knife to distinguish whether it is pointy or not with blunt. But, as others note, I would refer to a blunt object. A blunt object that happens to be a knife would have to be so dull as to not be able to pierce or slice skin. :)

      I would also use dull to relate to a person (a dullard, boring person) or a day (boring, slow or grey), and sometimes my brain (well, my brain has checked out for the day, sorry I've been so dull).

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  17. Rachel, in my AmE experience a sharp pain is intense but localized. So a sharp pain in my back would probably be at a specific location and hurt quite a bit. A dull pain would hurt less, and probably over a wide area.

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  18. AmE speaker here.

    One aspect that I haven't noticed anyone comment on his that, to me at least, "dull" primarily contrasts with with an ideal. That is, a dull object is supposed to be something else (literally or metaphorically, sharp or shiny or interesting).

    A blunt object can be blunt on purpose.

    Thus a "blunt knife" is probably a movie prop. A "dull" one needs to be sharpened.

    The distinction is not 100% consistent, as pain is either dull or sharp -- never blunt even when it comes from blunt force trauma.

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    1. Interesting comment on AmE, Drew, but it doesn't work for me.

      Blunt also contrasts with an ideal (a different ideal) in my speech. From the moviegoer's point of view the knife is sharp. The illusion is the ideal.

      If a dull knife is a movie prop, then it's a feeble and uninteresting plot device.

      Soldiers going into night battle (or exercises for night battle) would smear on something to take the shine off any brasses that they couldn't remove. The would make them dull on purpose.

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  19. As a BrEng speaker, I endorse everything David Crosbie, Mrs Redboots and Biochemist have said. On criticism:-

    Blunt criticism = rude, probably aggressive but rather unsubtle criticism, the metaphorical equivalent of a blunt (BrEng sense) instrument.

    Criticism that is sharp = astute, carefully targetted and even if polite, effective.

    Dull criticism = boring criticism.

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    1. Thank you, Dru. You've hit the nail on the head!

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  20. Anonymous in New Jersey14 January, 2018 23:28

    To my very American ear, "blunt knife" sounds awkward (though "blunted knife" sounds perfectly acceptable). When I think about it, that's weird because I am equally okay with describing metal and plastic table knives as being "blunt"; it seems as if my problem is with having that adjective come immediately before the noun. (When I think of a "blunted knife", I think of one that's supposed to be sharp or pointy or both, but isn't.)

    Sometimes, I find using "blunt" necessary because I've already used "dull" as the opposite of "shiny". Even then, I've wondered if it sounded weird to my listeners as it did in my head. Guess it depended on where they were from! – AiNJ

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    1. BriEng user again. To me, there would be a clear difference between a 'blunt knife' and a 'blunted knife'. A blunt knife is one that isn't sharp either because it's become blunt in use, or because it never was sharp. It's supposed to be sharp but it isn't. A 'blunted knife' would be one that had been deliberately blunted for some reason, e.g. to protect children from cutting themselves with it.

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    2. Anonymous in New Jersey23 January, 2018 05:20

      I also sense a difference between the two – only, for me, a blunted knife can have been either deliberately (usual) or accidentally/through use (less usual) made not-sharp/not-pointy. However, "blunt knife" remains sort of awkward, while "the knife is blunt" is less awkward. – AiNJ

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  21. Blunt for point, full for edge. Both contrast with sharp. Blunt can also contrast with point.

    To speak bluntly is to speak frankly.

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  22. A random and vaguely related bit of trivia: The name Dylan, in Welsh, is pronounced [ˈdəlan], and lots of Welsh people use this pronunciation for Dylan Thomas. I did for years, mildly irritated that everyone outside Wales called him [ˈdɪlən]. His parents were Welsh speakers, after all! But I was in the wrong. It turns out that South Wales is one of those parts of Britain where "dull" means "unintelligent". (I'm from the north, where the borrowed word "dwl" has that meaning in Welsh, but we don't use it in English.) Because of this, apparently, his mother decided to pronounce it [ˈdɪlan].

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  23. As a Brit., my instinct for the use of dull, in the sense of blunt, would be as a verb. "That is a good sharp knife. Don't use it for cutting paper, you'll dull the edge." I would understand if you told me a blade was dull, but I doubt that I would express it that way.

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  24. I(Australian but with a britsh mum) couldn't help but think of the children's song "There's a hole in my bucket" where the hapless Henry is directed to fix his bucket with straw only to find it is too long and he must cut but finds "the knife is too blunt" and so he sharpens it with a stone.

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  25. For me (BrE) and my husband (Edinburgh English) a blunt knife has no edge - it is not sharp at all. A dull knife (using a rarer expression) has a damaged or deficient edge but can still cut.

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  26. I'm a speaker of AmE (from Boston, in the Northeast, and thus sharing some features with BrE). The dialogue so far has made me think of the adverbs derived from the two adjectives. 'Blunt' forms 'bluntly', which describes a manner of speaking that doesn't take account of someone's sensibilities, whereas 'dull' forms (with a bit of difficulty) an adverb that we might spell 'dully' or 'dull-ly', which means (for me) 'in a boring manner'. Are these the same in BrE and other sorts of English?
    I recall one striking example of 'bluntly'. There is a surname 'Blunt', and one of the famous bearers of it was Anthony Blunt, the historian of art (and Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures) and spy for the Soviet Union. He was knighted, thus becoming Sir Anthony. He confessed his spying past under a promise of secrecy in 1964, but, according to the Wikipedia article, 'His confession, a closely held secret for many years, was revealed publicly by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in November 1979. He was stripped of his knighthood immediately thereafter.' I remember that the public statement confirming this stripping said, in its last sentence, neither 'Sir Anthony' nor 'Mr Blunt' but merely: 'Blunt has been notified.'
    My reaction was to wonder whether the author of the statement had meant to imply a pun, of the Tom Swifty variety: 'Blunt has been notified, he said bluntly.' Do other readers have the same reaction?

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