In a word: sciolist

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:


In a chat elsewhere, fellow editors were attempting to coin a word for those self-appointed experts on grammar and usage whose pronouncements betray ignorance of grammar and usage. Finally, someone pointed out that English has a perfectly serviceable, though sadly neglected, word, sciolist (pronounced SIGH-uh-list).

A sciolist, Merriam-Webster says, is someone who “speaks with spotty or superficial knowledge”—a poseur, a pretender, a provider of ersatz expertise. The related noun sciolism identifies “a superficial show of learning.”

They are from the Latin sciolus, “smatterer,” and scius, “to know.”

These people are all around us. It is not just the dunce who thinks that any sentence with a form of to be is a passive construction. It is the homemade constitutionalist arguing that he can do as he likes because the Constitution was only binding on the original signatories, or some such nonsense. It is the anti-evolution, anti-vaccination, anti-climate change crank, each with preposterous pseudo-scientific language.

Now, when you see them, you know what to call them.

Example: Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury, “Conflicts of Usage in the Pronoun,” Harper’s, 1912: “To arrive at correct conclusions on all disputed points would require the labor of a band of scholars working in unison and systematically collecting and collating the evidence. … Yet until it is done the field is left open to every sciolist who has the effrontery to substitute his hastily formed notions for the results of thorough investigation.”

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