The word cute has had an interesting shift in meaning over the years. The word began as a clipped form of acute and was used to mean cunning or quick-witted. Nathan Bailey, in his 1731 dictionary glosses it as:
Cute, sharp, quick-witted.
This original sense has fallen out of use, but still survives in stock phrases like don’t get cute with me.
In the first part of the 19th century, the word was picked up in American slang and used to mean attractive or charming. This is the meaning that predominates to this day. From Charles Augustus Davis’s 1834 Letters of Jack Downing:
I’m goin’ to show you about as cute a thing as you’ve seen in many a day.
And from Virginia Illustrated of 1857:
“What cute little socks!” said the woman.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton