Word of the Week! Sagacity

Jefferson & JacksonI’ve loved this word since early in college at UVA, where it was often used for that guy we always talked about as though he were in the next room: Thomas Jefferson. Though his life and legacy have been fairly scrutinized by good scholarship since those days, both for his treatment of enslaved peoples and some of his impractical ideas about self-governance, no one I have met or read doubts that Jefferson was as widely read and had as deeply a philosophical turn of mind as the French philosophes of The Enlightenment.

But was he “sagacious”? Is sagacity the same as brilliance?

The OED’s first definition, from a French word, floored and enlightened me. Though it’s obsolete, sagacity once related to having an “acute sense of smell.” That idea persisted through the 17th Century, when a more modern sense of “shrewdness” or “sound judgement” came into usage. Sagacity, then, has more to do with practical sensibilities than “book learning.” Meanwhile, shrewdness itself, from a Middle English word, has never had a completely positive sense, morally.

After reading Alan Pell Craford’s excellent Twilight at Monticello, I’d argue that Jefferson’s sagacity was limited. At the time of the Declaration, he smelled the times correctly. Later, he was less sagacious in missing the religious changes from Anglican Virginia to more conservative sects, from being rather naive about the ways that enslaved peoples might be freed over time, and in underestimating the divisions that emerged in America by the 1820s.

One might, looking at the evidence, say that while Andrew Jackson was far less educated than Jefferson, “Old Hickory,” with his many faults, was far more sagacious politically. And that in no way is praise for him or Jefferson. Let the scholarship speak for itself. I will be sagacious enough not to wade into those waters.

If you have an interest in Crawford’s book, I’d start with this audio interview by the Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image mashup, from Creative Commons sources, by the author.

Metaphor of the Month! Occam’s Razor

Omuamau AsteroidAfter a holiday break, our metaphors are back. I love this one for its colorful connotation, but it also tells us something vital about how science works.

The OED Online informs us that the idea was named for 13th Century Franciscan friar, philosopher, and scientist William of Ockhamthough the concept of “cutting away of extraneous material” is far older. That idea, however, goes beyond the sort of editing of deadwood that I teach to my writing students. Occam’s Razor is about the elegance of choosing the simplest explanation, when many others are possible.

The dictionary notes an etymology only dating to the 19th Century and the single and succinct definition: “The principle that in explaining anything no more assumptions should be made than are necessary.”

Consider a recent conversation where a colleague in Physics employed Occam’s Razor. Not long ago, the mysterious object Oumuamua (also spelled ‘Oumuamua) passed through the inner solar system. Given the object’s trajectory and speed, it appeared likely to have come from another star system. Then a team of Harvard Physicists published a paper that caused a brief news sensation. Among the other possible explanations for our visitor, they note “‘Oumuamua may be a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”

Naturally, this got a lot of popular press. What got skipped by these journalists was the idea that the other simpler explanations for the celestial object’s odd acceleration are more likely. Until evidence for ET presents itself, scientists but apparently not journalists must employ Occam’s Razor. Personally, I would love our civilization to have a Rendezvous with Rama, to cite a novel of first contact by the late Arthur C. Clarke. More likely, however, data will reveal other ways the asteroid could behave as it does.

Less than thrilling? Yes. Good science? Also, yes. Consider that the next time you hear an implausible explanation. Take your razor to it.

As for spelling? Aldous Huxley preferred “Ockham” as late as 1960, in a usage the OED provides. I’d not encountered it in print before today. Huxley also questioned the idea, wondering if it “isn’t a valid scientific principle. Perhaps entities sometimes ought to be multiplied beyond the point of the simplest possible explanation.”  I leave that up to my colleagues in STEM to debate, but I like Occam’s Razor, to cite an earlier Metaphor of the Month, as my Rule of Thumb.

Please nominate a word or metaphor useful in academic writing by e-mailing me (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or leaving a comment below.

See all of our Metaphors of the Month here and Words of the Week here.

Image courtesy of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, via Wikipedia.