• polymath •
pah-lee-mæth • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A person of great learning in diverse areas of human knowledge; a Renaissance man or woman.
Notes: This good word is yet another in our series of words that are not what they seem. No, it is not someone who can solve several math problems at once but a person of broad learning. Someone who has knowledge of a variety of fields, though we tend to think of them, as we do Leonardo da Vinci, as excelling in those fields, too. The abstract noun is polymathy and the adjective, polymathic. I suppose a specialist would be a monomath, though this word has not emerged yet.
In Play: If you are as tired of hearing the obsequious phrase "rocket scientist" as I, you will be happy for this alternative expression, "You don't have to be a polymath to know not to lick frozen metal." Polymaths are generally very useful folks to have around, but not always: "Claire Voyant is a remarkable polymath who knows everything about everything except her job."
Word History: This excellent word is none other than Greek polymathes "knowing much" from poly "many, much" + mathein "to learn". This is the same root that we find in Sanskrit medha "wisdom" and Avestan mazda "idea, memory". In Albanian it is mund "can". The original Proto-Indo-European root, *mendh-, may contain the *men- of mental and English mind but, however obvious this might seem, there are problems in making the connection. (We are grateful to Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira—the Brazilian dude in the Alpha Agora—for being smart enough to come up with today's good word.)