August 13, 2009


Autodidact Mark Twain

is known to have said:

"I have never let my schooling

interfere with my education."

Portrait by Carroll Beckwith.


autodidact: a person who is self-taught



autodidactic: self-taught; of or pertaining to self-teaching


These words derive from the Greek combination auto + didactic, in which auto- means self and didactic means having the character or manner of a teacher; intended to instruct.

The word for self-taught in Greek is autodidaktos.


didactical, didactive — additional adjectival forms

didactically — adverb: in an autodidactic manner

didacticism — noun: the practice or quality of being didactic

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

Autodidacticism IN USE

Media critic Michael Wolff comments in this month's Vanity Fair that the blog of political blogger Ben Smith

has a sense of extreme autodicacticism, a kind of focus and relentlessness and unavoidability that, through sheer immediacy and constancy, forces everybody to acknowledge it and deal with and talk to Smith. Smith ends up being the only one as interested in what his sources are doing as they themselves are. — Michael Wolff. "Politio's Washington Coup" Vanity Fair p 76 August 2009.

Autodidacts of Ben Smith's sort represent, in Wolff's view, a new journalistic model:

Smith 32, lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children (with a third about to be), and is, too, a total dweeb. His blog, which he started at The New York Observer, then moved to the Daily News, and then to Politico, is another new journalism model.

SYNONYMS for Autodidact & Autodidactic

A synonym for autodidact is automath: a self-taught person, an autodidact — derived from auto, self, and math, learned. "Those Automaths, those self taught Philosophers." 1759 YOUNG Conject. Orig. Comp.292. — OED

The Merriam Webster's Thesaurus offers three compounded synonyms for autodidactic: self-educated, self-instructed, and self-taught.

ASSOCIATED TERMS: words that are often associated with autodidact but which are not precisely synomymic.

When we think of a person who is an autodidact or automath, we consider two concepts: (1) self-energy that has produced (2) much learning.

If we know of a person who has acquired much learning, but don't know whether the learning was self-initiated or credentialized, we can use the term

polymath, a person of great and varied learning.

The Etymological Dictionary tells us the word comes from the Greek poly-, signifying much, + math, signifying

Similar to polymath is polyhistor, which J. N. Hooks in The Grand Panjandrum states, is

a person with vast, almost encyclopedic learning. Polymath is derived from Greek words meaning much learning, polyhistor, from Greek for much knowing. — New York: Macmillan, 1919. 15.


There are websites for everything these days, including autodidacts. One of these sites, Autodidactic Press (at, dedicates itself, not surprisingly, to the propositions

• That lifelong learning is fundamental to living a full and interesting life.

• That the learning necessary to gain competence in a job or career is far, far more important than how or where it is acquired.

The site lists alphabetically — from Abigail Adams to Chuck Yeager — 184 persons whom its editors consider to be premier autodidacts. Here are the A's on their list (with each name, here, available as a link to a brief biography of the person on the Autodidactic Press website):

To scan the entire list of 184, looking any of your favorite historical personages who might have been autodicacts, click here.


Two other words that are really only tangentially related to autodidact but which are, nonetheless, of word-mavenly interest, are the refined philomath and the rowdy goliard.

Wordnet defines the useful philomath, as "a lover of learning," and the admittedly less useful but engagingly quirky goliard, as "a wandering scholar in medieval Europe, famed for intemperance and riotous behavior and the composition of satiric and ribald Latin songs." If you know such a scholar-roustabout, you've now got a precise put-down to usewhen events get out of hand: "Enough with singing that raucous Latin porno, ya vulgar goliard!

If the learned among you are, happily, not given to goliardy, you could refer to one of them using one of the words described earlier in this post, or try savant, defined, by The Little Oxford Dictionary, as a "learned person" or pundit, as a "learned Hindu; expert."


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the new word, John. You found/chose the perfect cartoon ending!