Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Just a cockeyed opsimath

So, a couple of posts ago, I used the term opsimathy. This was deliberate and mindful choice and I'd like to expand on it a bit more.

Opsimathy refers to the ability to learn late in life. I first encountered this word 40 years ago. Back then we had these things called newspapers - sort of static web pages printed out on large paper. These newspapers ran columns - those were sort of like blogs, with a new post every week. James J. Kilpatrick was a politically conservative journalist (he's the one Dan Ackroyd is parodying in the "Jane, you ignorant slut..." bit from SNL) who also was a bit of a language maven, and for a while he wrote a regular column all about grammar and usage. In September 1975, Kilpatrick noted in this column that William F. Buckley had praised [former New York Governor and then-vice President] Nelson Rockefeller's opsimathy and he delighted in the erudition its use demonstrated.

To me, using the word presented a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, it was the perfect word to describe the quality that Buckley was seeking to highlight in the man who may have been the last liberal Republican. On the other hand, if no one even recognizes the word, much less understands it - and Kirkpatrick presents a laundry list of respected journalists who did not -  does it serve to aid communication and persuasion? Or is making your readers run to the dictionary part of the goal?

Another favorite word of this ilk is depauperate. I think I found it on a saunter through the thesaurus in the "height" area. Depauperate is in the bucket with short, but its precise meaning is something like not having attained full growth or development. A plant having short stems might be normal; having depauperate stems cannot be. Is Woveline short or depauperate?

I am still not sure how to advise my writing students regarding this sort of choice. On the one hand, Aristotle tells us rhetorical choices ought to be audience- and situation-driven: find the most effective means of persuasion for the particular circumstance, and that includes assessing the register of your audience's vocabulary. On the other hand, if we write only to the common denominator, our prose begins a race to the bottom and we lose grace and style. Maybe there are circumstances where persuasion isn't the all-overriding goal.

In any case, I chose opsimathy in my own composition for a very particular reason related to its very particular meaning. To me, the connotation carried in the word is more than just the notion that an opsimath chooses to be a life-long learner; rather, it is that the opsimath possesses a surprising ability, one so noteworthy as to merit a peculiar designation: the capability of continuing to learn long after the expectation has dissolved. As depauperate is not just short, but shorter than should be, opsimathy is not just learning, it's unexpected learning when the world has reckoned you done.

And that's part of what riled me up in that earlier post: we don't need the burdens that external expectations or preconceptions can place on us - you're not a writer, you're not an artist, you're not an athlete - when we already place so many barriers in our own way through self-doubt, fear, or lack of confidence. We don't need to add an expiration date to the mess.

Do defy depauperation and reach your full development, whatever stage of life you are at. All it takes is a little opsimathy. Just ask Rocky.

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