Printable Version
Pronunciation: nesh-êns, nesh-ee-êns Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. Ignorance, unawareness, lack of knowledge. 2. Agnosticism, the assumption that humans are incapable of understanding the nature of life or the universe.

Notes: Today's Good Word is derived from the adjective nescient "ignorant". Speakers of English often confuse the words ignorant and stupid. Here is a way to make it perfectly clear that we are speaking about a lack of knowledge, not an inherent flaw of intelligence—and it comes in nominal and adjectival form.

In Play: Today's word is more soothing than ignorance, less likely to ruffle feathers: "How one man could achieve such nescience in one lifetime is beyond my comprehension." The second sense above is even less common than the first, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary it was used as late as 1993 in sentences like this: "Human nescience about the universe is irreconcilable with the impulse to know, and the friction between the two has generated both science and religion."

Word History: Today's Good Word is a product of Late Latin, in particular nescientia. Nescientia is a noun built upon nescien(t)s "being ignorant", the present participle of nescire "to be ignorant". This verb contains two components: ne "not" + scire "to know". Those of you who have already spotted science lurking inside today's word are correct in your observation. Science comes from the unnegated form of the same present participle. The source of this word in Latin seems to be Proto-Indo-European skei- "to cut, split", and probably gained its Latin meaning from the assumption that knowledge—certainly scientific knowledge—is based on analysis, that is, splitting a subject up into its constituent parts. (Joe Radoszewski is far from nescient, for 'tis he who suggested today's rather arcane Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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