You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: polymath

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word:


Everyone respects the specialist, who is deeply informed in his or her area of expertise, but can seem a little narrow. Someone of wide but superficial knowledge is easily dismissed as a dilettante. But occasionally one comes across someone whose knowledge is both wide-ranging and deep, and such a person we call a polymath.

Greek gives us polymath (pronounced PAHL-ee-math), from poly-, “much” or “full,” plus mathes, “learning.” Mathes comes from the verb mathein, mathanein, “to learn.”

Leonardo, Newton, Bertrand Russell, Hildegard of Bingen and others are frequently labeled polymaths. “Renaissance man” and “Renaissance woman” are casual terms for the same sort of person.

Example: From “The Billy Pulpit” by Grant Wacker in Christian Century, November 15, 2003, on Billy Graham: “In 1990 the Catholic polymath Garry Wills charged that politicians had ‘somewhat cynically’ manipulated Graham. That Graham was the kind of lightweight who allowed himself to be manipulated seemed plausible; elsewhere Wills described him as a creator of the ‘golf-course spirituality’ of the 1950s.”

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