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I use “shrewd” to mean smart but in a negative, cunning way. One native English speaker told me that this is wrong. According to her “shrewd” is just as positive as “smart”. But another native English speaker told me that I am right. What is your impression of the word “shrewd”?

  • June 5, 2003
  • Posted by Dyske
  • Filed in Usage

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It depends entirely on context. It can mean tricky or sharp (in both the smart and physical sense).

They walked against the shrewd winter wind.

The shrewd conartist approached the tourists.

...a shrewd observer...

IngisKahn June 5, 2003, 3:00pm

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While I agree that the weight of context could well cast this word in a positive light, I cannot ignore references such as "Taming of the Shrew", and the vague rodent connotations, and a generally furtive, hostile atmosphere swathed about this word. In my lexicon, 'shrewd' is filed under Villainous Adjectives.

archduke paul June 8, 2003, 5:13pm

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The dictionary is never wrong:

"a : marked by clever discerning awareness and hardheaded acumen <shrewd common sense> b : given to wily and artful ways or dealing <a shrewd operator>" (from Merriam-Webster Online)

note: "clever" and "artful"

Idle June 17, 2003, 11:40pm

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Shrewd can only be positive, it is a mindset. The only instance in which being shrewd might be considered negative is where the thought involved in making a shrewd decision might lose you valuable time, or in a creative process where mulling things over to the nth degree might lead to your growing stale and ineefective.

Shrewd might be seen to be the antithesis of spontaneity and would thus be considered negative.

Hugh June 26, 2003, 3:13pm

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The word shrew does carry a negative connotation that originated in Olde and Middle English. In Middle English, the world "schrewed" meant to curse. The original definition is evil, bad, wicked, mischievous, schrewish (?). In contemporary English, schrewd implies a keenness of mind, sharp insight, and a cleverness in practical matters which in my mind molds a mental image of a cleverly cunningly conniving kind of person.

For anyone who cares to read on, here are a few synonyms that might find more use in certain circumstances~

Sagacious - implies keen discernment and farsighted judgment, as in a sagacious counselor

Perspicacious - suggests the penetrating mental vision or dscernment that enables one clearly to see and understand what is obscure, hidden, as in someone with a perspicacious judge of character

Astute - implies shrewness combined with sagacity and sometimes connotes, in addition, artfulness or cunning, as in an astupid... er i mean astute politician

jikhwang June 28, 2003, 5:35pm

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I think it's all in who you talk to...

If your a accountant, and you respect another accountant, you could say he's shrewd. and it would be a complement...

On the other hand, If you went to the public market, bought a t-shirt and payed 3 times what it's worth.. You could say the shopkeeper was shrewd.. in a bad way..

josh July 1, 2003, 8:43am

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I have to agree with IngisKahn on this. It all comes down to context. I think the common use has caused a negative connotation due to the feeling of inferiority it can cause. Someone cannot be shrewed without being considered better than the accepted average.

Anthony July 9, 2003, 3:33pm

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I agree that "shrewd" depends on the context, though I usually associate it as positive, particularly because it means being clever or sharp in practical matters (such as business).

The comments referring to Taming of the Shrew and the word "shrew" are incorrect, however. "Shrew" can mean either a rodent and a scolding, nagging woman. Shakespeare was referring to the latter definition when titling the play. Although the character was quite the wit and may be described as a shrewd person, the title is simply calling her a woman with an unruly personality.

By the way, "shrewd" and "shrew" may sound alike, but they are two completely different words. Associating them is a common mistake, but it means misinterpreting their definitions. Also, if "shrewed" was not a misspelling, there is no such word as "shrewed," as shrew is not a verb.

bakemono July 10, 2003, 12:06am

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I've always found shrewd to have the connotation of weasely, the kind of conniving smart that, say, satan-worshipping corporation owners would use to get away with screwing the public out of their rightful dues.

However, it's all how you were raised, in English, which is the sad part. Nobody's really right.

Kain July 12, 2003, 11:15pm

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I'll always us it with a predefining mood, from now on.

jaq December 3, 2004, 10:47am

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