In a word: autodidact

January 07, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


One of the most notable self-educated persons in American history is Abraham Lincoln, who had the sketchiest of formal educations in his childhood, no more than a few months. Teaching himself English prose from reading the Bible and Shakespeare, and later teaching himself logic through reading law, he became a formidable thinker and speaker.

As Robert Penn Warren wrote, "So we have a long list of autodidacts, including Lincoln, Mark Twain, and Dreiser."

The word (pronounced AWT-oh-DIE-dakt) combines two Greek words, auto, "self," and didaskein, "teach. An autodidact is a self-taught person.

Not every autodidact is as impressive as Lincoln, and the term does not always convey admiration. An autodidact, learning in isolation, can drift into odd tributaries and eddies of learning, falling prey to crank theories. An autodidact, conscious of the lack of prestige that comes from completing formal education, may also display a defensive pride. The condescending attitude toward autodidacts comes out in today's example.

Example: From a 2007 article in Britain' Daily Telegraph: "Unlike many autodidacts, Massingberd never paraded his encyclopedic mind."

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