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WordWatch: Is use of polymath emerging?

posted by on 2010.08.04, under information, polymath

In a matter of minutes of online reading, I came across the use of polymath – in three different cases. defines the word as ”a person of great learning in several fields of study.”

Interestingly enough, the use was connected to Sidney Harman, the business leader who is buying Newsweek. He also sits on the board of The Aspen Institute, a think tank that focuses on ideas, civic life and education.

First, I saw the word in this article from The Daily Beast to describe media publisher Steve Brill: “Publishing polymath Steve Brill said…”

Second, I saw it in this Aspen Daily News article which quoted Walter Isaacson, president and chief executive officer of The Aspen Institute, talking about Harman’s purchase.

“He’s got polymath sensibilities. He is interested in almost everything,” Isaacson is quoted as saying.

Third, I heard it in a video from The Aspen Institute in which distinguished panel members were being introduced for a talk about the state of the U.S. economy and the financial crisis.

As you know, I recently spent a week on the road in the American West, blogging for the Wing Luke Museum of Seattle about sites important to Chinese immigrants – miners, railroad workers and merchants – during the 19th century.

So, while I was traveling, the word might have increased in use.

Or, I might have not been paying enough attention to things. Or, it could be this one circle in which use is popping up.

I once thought that the use of “comparative advantage” was part of the global rage – especially with trade. I am still fascinated with trade and the idea of “comparative advantage.”

But as we know, global trade – while still truly important, especially to Washington state - hasn’t been the most popular topic in recent years, given charges that countries are not playing fairly and the fact that the costs of it have become apparent.

So, if you’re like me and have uttered “comparative advantage” in recent years, keep in mind that, well, its use – in many circles - is so 2005.

And probably even earlier than that.

Anyway, if you’re stuck for a word to describe a friend, mentor, instructor or relative, you can add polymath to your vocabulary.

In fact, if it becomes used so often, you can rank it up there with the use of: ”It is what it is.”

Awesome, huh?

Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary also weigh in with definitions.

If the Urban Dictionary definition has meaning, you’d probably want to watch your spelling and avoid polypath.


and I have a new book out called The New Polymath – linked above. It’s less about individual polymaths through plenty from history and today’s are referenced – but about enterprises (many case studies with examples) which are learning to put together 3,5, 10 strands of infotech, biotech, nanotech, cleantech etc to come up compound new innovations to solve problems we could not a few years ago.

Last Fall, I begged the publisher to change the title (which I had proposed) because hardly any of the audiences I presented to knew the term Polymath..they asked me to persist and today a lot more know it, as you have found…

vinnie mirchandani ( August 4, 2010 at 3:26 pm )

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