Posts Tagged ‘1’


Synonym Smash #1: ‘intelligent’ and ‘knowledgeable’

October 1, 2008

Image by A.K. Photography

Image by A.K. Photography

Intelligence is an amorphous concept that is difficult to measure. This may contribute to the confusion between the terms ‘intelligent’ and ‘knowledgeable’; if our best and brightest minds continue to argue about the nature of intelligence, how can the rest of the populace pin it down?

Even the APA dedicated an entire task force to searching for answers to the biggest questions about intelligence and their only conclusion was that “finding the answers will require a shared an sustained effort as well as the commitment of substantial scientific resources.”

In the meantime, many psychological researchers continue to use standardized intelligence quotient scores to measure intelligence for purposes of study. To define intelligence, they usually use some variation of this tautology: intelligence is what intelligence tests measure. Great – that’s no help at all. What aspect of human intellect is isolated and represented by IQs? Originally, IQ tests were intended to determine academic performance, and though intelligence measurement has undergone countless revisions since that time, some of the principles are still the same. Verbal, spatial and mathematical ability are central to determining intelligence using modern scales.

But is that intelligence? Many people in the general population and great minds that specialize in intelligence research would disagree, and the latter do so vigorously. These evaluations of intelligence are felt to be an incomplete snapshot of human intellect, only capturing a single aspect: knowledge! That’s where the term ‘knowledgable’ comes in. Can someone be intelligent without being knowledgeable? What about the other way around? The answer is “Yes,” on both accounts.

A knowledgable person has a bank of experience or information available to them that they can use to resolve problems. Any specialist will testify that it takes a lot of experience or studying to reach their level of expertise. Let’s even say that this specialist is considered to be quite intelligent by peers and the general population alike. However, that same specialist can probably point you to a colleague or rival with the same bank of experience that they think is about as sharp as a boulder. Intelligence and knowledge do not always overlap.

Gardner, founder of the Multiple Intelligences Theory, would argue that an engineer and a talented musician are equally intelligent, but in different ways. There’s a good chance that standardized tests would disagree. In the end, intelligence scales measure something less than intelligence and more than knowledge, but they do help us draw the line between the two.

I’ll leave you with the dictionary’s definition for both terms so you can compare and contrast:

1. having good understanding or a high mental capacity; quick to comprehend, as persons or animals: an intelligent student.
2. displaying or characterized by quickness of understanding, sound thought, or good judgment: an intelligent reply.
3. having the faculty of reasoning and understanding; possessing intelligence: intelligent beings in outer space.
4. Computers. pertaining to the ability to do data processing locally; smart: An intelligent terminal can edit input before transmission to a host computer. Compare dumb (def. 8).
5. Archaic. having understanding or knowledge (usually fol. by of).

Note the archaic definition.

1. highly educated; having extensive information or understanding; “knowing instructors”; “a knowledgeable critic”; “a knowledgeable audience” [syn: knowing]
2. alert and fully informed; “a knowing collector of rare books”; “surprisingly knowledgeable about what was going on”
3. thoroughly acquainted through study or experience; “this girl, so intimate with nature”-W.H.Hudson; “knowledgeable about the technique of painting”- Herbert Read [syn: intimate]

We have debated the nature of intelligence for decades and will continue to do so for decades more. The important thing to take away from this Synonym Smash is this: using the word ‘intelligent’ in conversation or writing will leave the meaning open and abstract. If you want to peg down a more specific feature of human intellect, the term ‘knowledgeable’ does the job.

Put that on your intelligence test, Binet!


Word Seeds #1: “Moot”

September 30, 2008

debating moot points You’ve been arguing with your best friend for twenty minutes about whether Firefly deserved to be cancelled or whether it should have continued into a second season, when finally your friend throws up his or her hands and says, “Forget it. It’s a moot point, anyway.”

The understood meaning of the word ‘moot’ is that the subject is purely academic and that arguing about it will serve no further purpose. The argument is effectively closed; in this circumstance, Firefly has been cancelled, and discussing whether or not this was justified will not bring the show back.

This is the accepted common usage. However, even‘s usage panel hardly agree on this; only 59 percent of the panel felt that the current contextual use of the word was acceptable. Why is that? Perhaps because the word originally meant something very different indeed.

The Anglo-Saxon mot referred to a meeting or assembly, and the term moot arose from its ashes as an adjective to describe something debatable or unresolved. The connotations of insignificance had not yet been attached to it; this happened when 16th century law jargon came to include the phrase ‘moot case.’ A moot case was a hypothetical law case that students would debate in order to sharpen their skills. It adhered to the original meaning of the word because it involved debate, but unlike your typical debate, the arguments presented in a moot case carried no relevance in the real world.

Should this be a case of Mistaken Identity? No, because if you tried to use the word moot in academic writing to mean both arguable and of practical value, you would certainly be criticized or looked down upon by your readers.

It’s amazing how the application of a word to describe a single circumstance, such as a hypothetical law case, can change the future of that word permanently. Should this word return to its original usage? Should we discard the modern meaning in favor of the original? The point is moot – and what I mean by that is completely up to you.