Monthly Archives: February 2010

sciolist /’saɪəlɪst/

Being a misanthropic, skeptical, cynical curmudgeon may seem like a miserable way to go through life but it’s actually quire good fun. If you think that “Life sucks, and then you die” then every day you aren’t dead is a bonus!

Chronic cynicism means that I love quotes such as Einstein’s “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity – and I’m not sure about the former.” The philosopher Bertrand Russell was no less critical when he said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell

H. L. Mencken was never one to sugar-coat his opinions, and his general opinion of mankind was often unfavorable. “All men are frauds. The only difference between them is that some admit it. I myself deny it.” More acidly, he also said that, “No more than one man in ten, at least in the United States, is really a master of the trade he practices. The rest take money for doing what they are quite incompetent to do, and thus live by false pretenses.”

Henry Louis Mencken

The idea that people feign competence so as to appear smarter than what they actual are is not new. The word sciolist appears in 1615 to describe someone who is “A superficial pretender to knowledge; a conceited smatterer.” It derives from late Latin sciol-us, which translates as “smatterer.” More specifically, it is the diminutive of scius, which means “knowing,” and that in turn comes from the verb scire, meaning “to know.”

In 1639, George Digby, the Second Earl of Bristol said “Only sciolous wits float onely in uncertainty.”[1] Just a year later, James Howell wrote, “I could wish, that these sciolous Zelotists had more Judgement joynd with their Zeale.”[2] Incidentally, Howell – the son of a Welsh clergyman and author of a book on English grammar – coined the well-known phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” [3]

Sciolism as a noun appears in Coleridge’s The statesman’s manual; or the Bible the best guide to political skill and foresight; a lay sermon, published in 1816, where he talks about, “That epidemic of a proud ignorance occasioned by a diffused sciolism.”

Although it looks similar, the word scion comes from very different roots. A word that does have the same root is science, which derives from the Latin scient-em, the present participle of scire, the same starting point for sciolist.

Some flavors of sciolists are dilettante, from the Italian dilettante and originally delectare meaning “to delight in; dabbler, from the Dutch dabbelen, which refers to trampling ones feet in mud; and the profoundly scatological bullshitter, from Middle English bole (bull) along with Old English scite or scitte, “dung” and “diarrhea” respectively.

Bull shitter mug

BS Mug

But we’ll leave talking about shit to another posting.

[1] Letters between the lord G. Digby and Sir K. Digby concerning religion.1639
[2] Dendrologia, Dodona’s Grove, or the Vocall Forest. 1640
[3] Proverbs in English, Italian, French and Spanish. 1659


Leave a comment

Filed under Etymology