Printable Version
Pronunciation: skep-tê-si-zêm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun, mass (no plural)

Meaning: 1. Doubt, disbelief, the inclination to suspect the truth of something. 2. A philosophy beginning with Pyrrho of Elis, who fought dogmatism by showing reasons for doubting it. Today it is the position that absolute knowledge is impossible, and that science can succeed only with relative certainty.

Notes: Although the stem of today's word, skeptic, may be a noun or adjective, most careful speakers reserve skeptical for adjectival duty. As for spelling, seldom is the speaker of English allowed the option of using the spelling of either language from which we borrow words. However, in addition to the Greek spelling above, you may also use the Latin spelling, scepticism. US editors tend to prefer the K, while British editors are more comfortable with the C.

In Play: Skepticism is a necessary part of a healthy attitude so long as it does not sour into cynicism: "Granville, I take it you view my plan for increasing company profits while establishing permanent world peace with some skepticism." It is often behind the practice of betting, "If you would place a financial value on your skepticism that I can win the marathon—say $50—it would take on a much more interesting character."

Word History: Today's word is the abstract noun from skeptic/sceptic, borrowed from both Latin scepticus "skeptic" and from its source, Greek skeptikos "skeptic" from skeptesthai "to examine closely". This word comes from a fascinating root, PIE spek-/spok- "look, see", which we see in spectator, inspect, and, my personal favorite, spice. Yes, spice, the French version of Latin species, which originally meant "kind, type", but later came to mean "wares" and finally "spice". The other fascinating aspect of this root is that the P and K traded places in Greek (metathesis), where we find skopein "to see", visible in our words telescope, microscope, and the new (slang) verb to scope out. (Today we are grateful to M. Henri Day, a trader in our Alpha Agora, for seeing the potential in today's Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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