• savant •
Pronunciation: sæ-vahnt, sê-vahnt • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A very learned person, especially in a specialized field of the arts or science, a scholar. 2. An idiot savant, a person who is generally mentally impaired, but who is brilliant in one field, usually mathematics or music.
Notes: The notion of thoroughly knowledgeable in a specialized field slipped into thoroughly knowledgeable in one field to the exclusion of all others and from there to idiot savant or autistic savant. The abstract noun is savantism, which carries both senses of the concrete noun.
In Play: The first meaning is the basic sense of today's word: "Maude Lynn Dresser is the fashion savant of New Monia, Pennsylvania." However, somewhere in between the first and second meaning there is a place for performative geniuses who are not mentally impaired: "Both he and his sister Anna Mozart were child prodigies, but the world has never seen a musical savant like Wolfgang."
Word History: Today's Good Word is the Old French present participle of savoir "to know", inherited from Latin sapere "to taste, be wise". Latin inherited its verb from Proto-Indo-European sep- "to taste, perceive". The slippage from "perceptive" to "wise" can be easily understood. English borrowed words based on sapere directly from Latin as sapid "savoury" and sapient "wise". However, English received as many words based on this PIE stem via the French variation, savoir, i.e. savor, or the Spanish variation, savvy. The latter is the result of the mispronunciation of Spanish sabe (usted) "(you) know". The PIE word apparently never reached the Germanic languages, of which English is a member, so we find no Germanic variant in English. (Our gratitude for today's Good Word is owed Lew Jury, a lexical savant and old friend of the GW series.)