Acetic - aesthetic - ascetic

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Three words - acetic, aesthetic, and ascetic, and their derivatives - can be confusing because of their roughly similar appearance and pronunciations. However, their meanings are far enough apart for confusion to be embarrassing. Don't confuse them!

  • Acetic is the simplest. It is the name of a kind of acid, that which is part of vinegar. The recommended pronunciation is 'ah-SEE-tik', IPA: /ə ˈsiː tɪk/. Few people other than chemists (or occasionally cooks) need this word; and modern chemists are as likely to call it C2H4O2 = C2H3O(OH), or CH3COOH.
  • Aesthetic (spelled esthetic in American English ) means 'to do with the feelings, especially feelings of beauty'. The recommended pronunciation is 'ees-THET-ik', IPA: /iːs ˈθɛt ɪk/: some speakers use a 'short' vowel, like that in 'get' in both first syllables, 'es-THET-ik', IPA: /ɪ (or ɛ) s ˈθɛt ɪk/. The German philosopher Kant used aesthetics as "the science which treats of the conditions of sensuous perception" (cited in OED), but in English it has long had the meaning (which Kant thought erroneous) of 'the science, or study, of matters of taste', growing into "the study and appreciation of what is beautiful, particularly in the arts."
    • An aesthete is one who puts the appreciation and creation of beauty at a very high priority, specifically those who taught the ideal of 'art for art's sake', that art was the most important thing in life, in the last couple of decades of the nineteenth century.
    • The adjective anaesthetic, pronounced 'an-es-THET-ik'IPA: /ˌæn əs ˈθɛt ɪk/, means 'without feeling'. It is mostly used in medicine, where anaesthetics is the branch which controls consciousness and pain, particularly in surgery. An anaesthetic is the chemical, or drug, which an anaesthetist uses to anaesthetize a patient: to 'send the patient to sleep'. The general word for this branch of medicine, and for the experience of the patient, is anaesthesia.
  • Ascetics (pronounced with a 'silent '-c-', and the stress on the 'short' second vowel, 'uh-SET-ik', IPA: /ə (or æ or e)s ˈɛt ɪk/) are people who live a simple life, denying themselves any luxuries and only buying necessities. The original Ascetics were Christians who believed in fasting, celibacy and solitude. There is a related adjective ascetic.