Coarse - course

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Coarse and course are homophones. They should never be confused - confusing them is a sign of a confused mind.

  • The adjective coarse is the opposite of 'fine', as a description of texture. (OED defines it (2. a) as "Wanting in fineness, smoothness, or delicacy of texture, granulation, or structure; consisting of comparatively large parts or particles; or of such as are too large for beauty.") It was first applied to cloth, and was later extended to such things as complexions, ground, and rock. It is now used for a grade of abrasives, like sandpaper. All these are literal senses. Figuratively, it can also be applied to people and human characteristics, as in OED's meanings 4 ("Of persons: Wanting in delicacy of perception, apprehension, action; hence of observations, phenomena, etc.: Not refined or delicate, rough") 5 a ("Of personal behaviour, manners, language, etc.: Unrefined; rough, rude, uncivil, vulgar") and b (" b. The sense 'gross, indelicate' passes into that of 'indecent, obscene'. (Chiefly of language)". So 'coarse laughter' consists of what more colloquially are called 'dirty laughs'.
    • Coarse fish are freshwater fish other than salmon and trout and their relatives (the game fish).
  • Course can be a noun or a verb, and forms part of one of the commonest casual phrases in English, of course. It derives from,a Latin root with the general meaning of 'running'. Several meanings are directly related to this:
    • 'a direction', or 'the line that one is following'. A ship's course is the track she follows over the sea, and the Authorised Version tells how "the stars in their courses fought against Sisera" (Judges 5 20), to recount how astrology was against the unfortunate Sisera, captain of the armies of Canaan, which fought against the Jews. More figuratively, one may "follow [or take or decide on] a course of action", or plan.
    • The meaning 'the direction [of a race]' naturally gives rise to a 'racecourse', a track or field in which races (usually for horses or dogs) are run. This naturally transfers to a golf-course, the pitch or arena on which golf is played.
    • The Bible also uses course to mean a flowing. (In many older translations of religious texts, menstruation is written as "women in their courses.") This use survives in 'watercourse', meaning 'a path down which water (naturally) flows', 'a stream or river'.
    • The idea of 'flow' can be applied to time. The course of one's life is its passage from birth to death; the plot of a novel can be described as "the course of events", as in: "in the course of Bleak House the reader discovers the secret of various births in the course of Lady Deadlock's life". "The course of nature", or "the natural course [of events]", is the way in which things happen normally.
    • This can be more specifically a series of events in sequence. A doctor may prescribe a "course of treatment", and students in HE should be familiar with a "course of lectures". Sometimes a course in some subject names a whole planned teaching experience - the classes, the textbook and so on, up to the final exams.
      • Sometimes a course can be one among several in a series, as in food. In formal dinners, there may be a first course (commonly of soup); a fish course; a meat course and so on.
      • In [square-rigged]] sailing ships, the course was the name of what is now called the mainsail, and eventualklly became applied to the largest and lowest sail on all three masts: the forecourse, the course and the mizzencourse.
    • The idea of more or less regular change leads naturally enough to the idea of 'layers', or 'levels'. In architecture, a course is a level of brick- or stone-work. A string course is a "A distinctive horizontal course, projecting or flush, carried round a building, usually at floor level, to roughly mark the division of a building into floors" (C. H. Gregory, Gloss[ary of] Build[ing] Constr[uction], 1910, p. 42; cited in OED, s.v. string n., 33).
  • As a verb, 'to course' is 'to hunt down by running'. Nowadays, this is usually restricted to (the now illegal) 'sport' of hunting live hares with greyhounds. The name of the 'sport' is the verbal noun coursing.
  • The phrase of course is essentially a development of the idea of the noun "the natural course". OED gives the meaning of of course as "Naturally, as will be expected in the circumstances; for obvious reasons, obviously. (Sometimes used as an emphatic affirmative reply.)"


Etymological note: the spellings coarse and course were used interchangeably for both modern meanings until the eighteenth century. Hensleigh Wedgwood, in A Dictionary of English Etymology of 1859-65 suggested that the meaning now spelled as coarse, first applied to cloth, meant 'clothes worn in the normal course [modern spelling], or everyday garments', as opposed to 'fine clothes', for 'fine wear' - on special occasions - what from the fifteenth to the twentieth century was called, in poorer families at least, "Sunday best".