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The nuance of the word ‘nuance’


I’ve never before heard the word “nuance” receive as much popular use as I have at Stanford.

After hearing this word pop up in multiple contexts at Stanford, I decided to look further into this vague term. According to Merriam-Webster, “nuance” is an abstract noun that refers to a subtle distinction or variation, a subtle quality, or sensibility to, awareness of, or ability to express delicate shadings (as of meaning, feeling, or value). The word “nuance” arose from the Latin noun “nubes,” meaning “cloud.” Middle French then used “nue” to refer to a cloud, which then evolved into “nuer” to mean “shade of color.” English then borrowed the word “nuance” from French to mean “shade.” This is perhaps also similar to “nudd” in Welsh, meaning “mist.” Nuance is commonly used in regards to music to depict a “subtle, expressive variation in a musical performance (such as in tempo, dynamic intensity, or timbre) that is not indicated in the score.” (Adapted from Merriam-Webster dictionary)

The roots of this word lend “nuance” characteristics to accurately define the state of a subject’s complex meaning. For something to be “nuanced” means that there are multiple contesting perspectives that allow such a topic to have this “fog” or “veil” surrounding it. And like morning fog, these complex, competing angles are not outwardly apparent. “Nuanced” has quite a paradox. It refers to differences that are as subtle and significant as water’s form shifts to “mist.”

So, how does this Middle French word find its way around progressive Stanford? Coming to Stanford has made me deliberately think about matters previously appearing simple to me. Ideas that had previously appeared to me as elementary are now much harder to understand. And it is because of this concept of “nuance.”

For example, I remember in my high school English class my teacher had us eliminate all the “to be” verbs in our narratives, as “being” was too plain of a word. This is potentially helpful in such a context; however, the very word “being” is far from plain. It is so heavily loaded and takes on a multiplicity of nuances. Math classes no longer focus on reaching a solution, and we discover that there are nuances in approaching a problem rather than lexicographically solving for “x.” Conversations with friends go on for hours over simple thoughts, and disagreements on a topic no longer often end in total certainty towards who is right. Innovations arise from noticing daily nuances and applying a way to cater to them.

Nuance allows for a greater understanding of slight differences, and it raises further questioning as those subtleties can really matter. “Nuance” holds a standard refinement and challenges generalizations.

Therefore, it is no wonder that this word “nuance” is such a frequently used word. A student in my PWR class noted that the very things we think we understand are the very things we need to understand more.

Stanford is also the place where I’ve heard more esteemed and scholarly individuals state, “I’m not sure,” in response to a question. I notice that professors are careful with making definitive, generalized statements. We paradoxically learn more and go more in depth into a subject and realize just how little we know and how many different directions a topic can go.

Nuance adds in the “but’s” and the “however’s” to a conversation. It welcomes differing takes on a matter and a fluidity of diverse ideas. And the influx of vantage points these “nuances” provide is a beautiful, frustrating thing.

Contact Cate Camara at ccamara2 ‘at’

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