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Good Word to Know: “Polymath”

Reading yesterday’s New York Times, I came upon the word polymath, and I couldn’t confidently determine its meaning from the context. Can you define the word? Here’s how The NYT used it:

The debut season of “Atlanta,” the FX series created by the polymath Donald Glover, will probably be remembered for its most ambitious, inexplicable gags. . . .

Decide on your definition before scrolling down for my thoughts.



The context doesn’t help much, does it? Many nouns could come before Donald Glover’s name, for example, writeractor, entertainer, rapper, comedian, or record producer. 

It turns out that that’s the point: Glover (who is also known as Childish Gambino in the music industry) is a man with all those talents. The word polymath means “a person of encyclopedic learning,” according to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and “a person of great or varied learning,” according to The American Heritage College DictionaryCanadian Oxford Dictionary adds the definition “a great scholar.”

I’m going to add polymath to my working vocabulary. It’s a perfect replacement for the phrase “Renaissance man,” and there’s no good synonym for it.

Did you know the word polymath before reading this blog post? Where did you learn it?

Spread the word!



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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

11 comments on “Good Word to Know: “Polymath””

  • Hi Martha,

    I’m curious about whether you guessed “multi-talented” because you are familiar with Donald Glover. Or did you get the idea from “polymath”?


  • I knew the word from a SciFi novel from the 70s. The title of the novel, oddly enough, was “Polymath”. So it was actually a rather esoteric word that I already knew.

  • I couldn’t guess it at all. I was trying to split the word in “poly” (many) and “math” (mathematics) so I thought it had to do with numbers, arithmetic and calculus, but I clearly was completely off road!

  • Sorry for the double comment, but now that I know the definition of polymath I’m wondering if it is a synonim of eclectic…

  • Hello John, Deborah, April, Martha, and JD,

    John, having the word as the title of a book would certainly help a person learn it. Great method!

    Deborah, I did what you did. “Poly” was easy, but “math” didn’t make sense to me. But I learned from reading closely in the dictionary that “math” refers to learning–not necessarily numbers, as we think of it. Regarding “eclectic,” I don’t think it quite fits, but it does cover some of the same ground in “selecting what appears to be the best in various . . . styles.”

    April, you’re right! I have listed to my “Hamilton” CD and just saw the play on Friday night. Now that have you have prompted me, I do remember hearing the word there, but there was so much to take in. Thanks!

    Martha, thanks for elaborating. Your approach makes perfect sense.

    JD, now you can be a real polymath! I’m glad you found this post helpful.


  • Hi Lynn. My guess was twofold. (A little bit of each of your suggestions!) The word has the root of “poly”, which hinted many or multi. And in the context of the sentence example that you provided, it made sense, since Mr. Glover is indeed talented. I really like learning to incorporate fresh words into everyday language, and this is a good one! Thanks.

  • I did; however, that’s because a writer friend of mine uses the term to describe herself. I admit to me it sounds more like a calculus equation. I wonder how many people THAT turns off. 😉

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