Thursday, September 04, 2014

`Opsimath That I Am in So Many Matters'

Knowing a word helps me understand the thing it names. Learning philtrum and aglet plugged holes in my enduring ignorance. That dent below my nose became real, a discrete thing in itself instead of a nameless no-man’s-land between septum and lip. And when my shoelaces fray at the ends, I know what to blame. Now I’ve learned a high-toned word for me and my fellow slow learners and late-bloomers: opsimath. The OED’s “Online Word of the Day” on Monday defined it as “a person who begins to study late in life.” While not literally applicable to me – in fact, I always loved to study – it confirms my sense that only in recent years have I started to mature intellectually, to learn and apply what I’ve learned at least occasionally to life. The OED gives three citations, all encouraging. The first is from The Church Times in 1883: “Those who gave the name were not simple enough to think that even an opsimath was not something better than a contented dunce.” 

The next comes from a book I’ve actually read several times, a rare science-fiction novel worth reading even once – Camp Concentration (1969) by the late poet Tom Disch: “`Opsi?’ I asked Mordecai. `Short for opsimath—one who begins to learn late in life. We're all opsimaths here.’” The fact that I don’t remember encountering the word reconfirms the thesis stated above. The third citation from one of William F. Buckley’s sailing chronicles, Windfall: The End of the Affair (1992): “They took me thirty years to learn, opsimath that I am in so many matters.” There’s also opsimathy and, of course, polymathy and philomathy, and I’ve learned that English is generous and broad-minded enough to have a word for marriage late in life – opsigamy, once the standard for men in Ireland. The OED, as usual, is the opsimath’s sanction for pursuing endless digressions.

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