Word of the Week! Autodidact

Jane Austen and David BowieWhat do David Bowie and Jane Austen have in common, other than being English? They both were self-taught in their professions.

We have a nomination this week from Sarah Spencer, a junior majoring in psychology. Sarah picks a fine word. I thought I had covered this before, but no. And like me, Sarah must have met her share of autodidacts.

My late friend Gary Braswell, who earned a GED, exemplified the self-taught person who defines autodidacts. Gary possessed the sort of math skills I’d have died for (or finished Engineering School with) in the 1980s. He read books about theoretical physics and could talk about String Theory, Dark Matter, and Special Relativity.

We seem to have an uptick in auto-didacticism, if the OED’s usage chart proves correct. The portal is acting up today, though I’ve signed in through the university account, but the snapshot shown here reveals a steep rise in usage since World War II. Are all those garage geniuses from Silicon Valley, many of them drop-outs, responsible? Bill Gates and Steve jobs make the list, as do Leonardo da Vinci, Elon Musk, Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin, Maya Angelou, Thomas Edison, Malcolm X, The Wright Brothers, and (Have you ever been experienced?) Jimi Hendrix and my favorite musician, David Bowie.

Seeing the paucity of women on that quick search I dug in more to discover Jane Jacobs, who wrote one of the best works about urbanism.  Then Charlotte Perkins Gilman, famous for her story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and whose early 20th Century utopian novel Herland remains a key landmark in the history of feminist literature.

Autodidacts fascinate me as they do Sarah. The best I’ve done as an autodidact has been to teach myself automotive repair, and I’m proud of my work getting one classic car back on the road and two more running well. I can do most minor repairs and a few major ones, though I leave brake-work to experts. If a car won’t start, I can call for help. If it won’t stop, on the other hand. . . YouTube certainly helped, but a lot involved trial and error. I can build fences, stone walls, even small buildings for our farm, too, but I got hands-on training with two expert builders. That training would not qualify me as an autodidactic carpenter.

Except for a hiatus for a while in June, this blog will continue in the summer months, so send words and metaphors of interest by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

Word of the Week! Fickle

Flying Fickle Finger of Fate TrophyOh, the “Flying Fickle Finger of Fate,” which is where I first heard our word, as a wee lad, back when “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” was the hottest show on television in 1968. Their  FFFF was an award of dubious distinction given for a poor performance. The US Congress was the first recipient. Makes sense. They have earned a lifetime award.

So there. That’s where I learned how fickle fate can be. But I never learned the origin or currency of our word. So let’s have a look, shall we?

Our word has multiple origins but all point to something changeable, unusally not in a good way. Some of fickleness relates to dishonesty, though the OED gives both that original meaning and a newer one meaning “puzzling.” Often fickle behavior, from a person or even the weather, puzzles us even if it does not hurt us.

From about the year  1200, we have “false, treacherous, deceptive, deceitful, crafty” (obsolete), probably from Old English ficol “deceitful, cunning, tricky,” related to befician “deceive,” and to facen “deceit, treachery; blemish, fault.” Common Germanic (compare Old Saxon fekan “deceit,” Old High German feihhan “deceit, fraud, treachery”), from the same source as “foe.” This all comes from the The Online Etymology Dictionary. Fickleness, then, antagonizes the predictable.

We live in fickle times. It seems that anything can happen, which could explain why since Rowan and Martin’s day, usage of the word has doubled from 1968 to 2014, attested by the entry cited above. The OED also records a more gradual uptick.

There are other words I would rather see gain popularity. Wouldn’t you? I hope no fickle fingers point your way this summer, but this blog will continue in the summer months, and I hope in some form in 2025, when I retire from full-time teaching on our faculty.

So until they carry me out feet-first after some fickle fate finds me, send words and metaphors of interest by e-mail (jessid -at- richmond -dot- edu) or by leaving a comment below.

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

Image Source:  from a site selling an original FFFF award!