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I’m interested in the words “instant omniscience,” which Calvin Trillin, a former editor for Time magazine, used in a New Yorker magazine article (March 20) entitled "Time Edit":

“There were some enjoyable aspects of being a floater. When I settled into the desk chair of, say, the Education writer, someone who presumably pored through the education quarterlies and lunched with school reformers and kept abreast of the latest disagreements about how best to teach reading, I could feel myself imbued with the authoritative tone favored in those days at Time; I called that ‘instant omniscience'."

The expression “instant omniscience” made me think of the Japanese word, “学者バカ- -Gakushabaka," the literal translation of which is “scholar’s fool” or “expert’s ignorance.” A "scholar's fool" is ignorant of everything but his area of specialty (e.g., quantum physics, aeronautics, neurology--you name it).

The expression "instant omniscience" also triggered this question: What is the English equivalent of “学者バカ- scholar’s fool”? In other words, how do you characterize in two or three words the person who is an expert in one area but seemingly ignorant in all other areas?

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The tropes, ditzy genius and genius ditz, might be of interest. – coleopterist Mar 22 '13 at 13:37
Mo´ro`soph n. 1. A philosophical or learned fool. – Kris Mar 22 '13 at 14:11
A one-trick pony specialist... ? :) – ErikE Mar 22 '13 at 19:14
Answers/ comments should better not be deleted unless they are offensive. cf. – Kris Mar 23 '13 at 6:27
Not exactly the same thing, Ivory Tower is a related concept. – CodesInChaos Mar 23 '13 at 9:10

7 Answers 7

up vote 5 down vote accepted

For a “person who is an excellent expert on one particular thing but ignorant of everything other than that in two or three words”, you might go with idiot savant, which gets the meaning across but is somewhat extreme.

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That is the exact opposite of what is needed. The term "autistic savant" has replaced the old term "idiot savant," which is perjorative and imprecise. A savant (from the French savoir, to know) is a sage, a learned person. Autistic savant: A person with autism who is exceptionally gifted in a specialized field. ... The autistic savant may be able to do rapid, complex mental calculations. ... The autistic savant may be able to perform a(n) entire piece of music after hearing it only once. – Kris Mar 22 '13 at 14:11
When you say it "has replaced the old term," what does that mean? I still use "idiot savant" for this purpose, and I know plenty of people who do. It may be the case that it's more politically correct, but that doesn't mean it's "been replaced." – Ben Mar 22 '13 at 15:23
Indeed, the very definition at (sense 2) is practically word-for-word what the OP is looking for. – Hellion Mar 22 '13 at 18:49
Plain English takes time to catch up with STM definitions. – Kris Mar 23 '13 at 6:24
@Pacerier Are you sure you're not mixing up your words? "Savant" means a learned person, like a scientist. It's the addition of "idiot" that brings along the "mental disability" aspect. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 2 at 19:47

Especially in an academic context, a gakushabaka might be described as an absent-minded professor.

From Wikipedia:

The absent-minded professor is a stock character of popular fiction, usually portrayed as a talented academic whose focus on academic matters leads them to ignore or forget their surroundings.

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Your answer reminds me of a quip sometimes heard in academia. When you earn a bachelor's degree, you are expected to take electives, because your education is supposed to be a bit broader than your academic discipline. When you earn a master's degree, your electives are related to your field and your master's thesis goes very in-depth within that domain. By the time you do a doctoral thesis, the scope narrows even more, but the depth plunges even deeper. If you continue this trend, you'll eventually reach the place where you know absolutely everything there is to know about nothing at all. – J.R. Mar 23 '13 at 7:01
"absent-minded" means always forgetting deadlines, promises, important dates, etc. That doesn't really fit the question. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Apr 3 at 12:54
@BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft "Absent-minded" may mean those things, but the absent-minded professor trope goes much further. They forget names, people, what they're doing right now, etc. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 2 at 19:48

This concept isn't often addressed with detail in English, at least not in the United States, but rather is explained by making an exaggeration about the person's other abilities, following an explanation of their expertise.

"Jane knew everything about quantum physics, but had difficulty tying her own shoes."

"Steve knew where everything was in the city, but could barely spell his own name."

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The expression "too smart for his own good" gets close, but I'm not sure it's exactly what you want. It usually has a more restricted context (a single situation) than you seem to be looking for.

The word "specialist" explicitly means someone who is good at a particular, narrow skill. In spoken English (and to some extent in writing), the inflection can also carry the unspoken faint praise: they're skilled at one thing and not skilled at others.

The words "hubris" and "arrogance" are generalized forms of believing yourself more capable than you actually are, though they certainly carry the sense you seem to be looking for. Perhaps "professional's hubris" or "professional's arrogance" could be what you're looking for.

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This is not the right context to use the term contrapositive. The contrapositive of the proposition "If someone is a specialist, he is good at a particular narrow skill." is "If someone is not good at a particular narrow skill, then they are not a specialist". – Peter Olson Mar 22 '13 at 17:14
@PeterOlson you're right, that wasn't the best way to say what I was thinking. I changed it. Do you like it better? – rsegal Mar 22 '13 at 17:55
@Rhetrician. You suspect if I understood what the words "instant omniscience" implied, maybe not. But working in New York-based ad agency for 30 years, I went through hundreds presentations to clients like Uni-Lever, Procter & Gamble, J&J, Dow Chemical, American Express, Northwest Airlines, Goodyear Tire, Tiffany, and so on., where I had to behave as the agency executive and an expert who knows the business more than anyone of the client. I had to demonstrate, and convince the client of my ‘omniscience’ as the presenter to make their business successful, – Yoichi Oishi Mar 23 '13 at 20:30
Cont. even though my knowledge about their business was crammed just in several weeks before the presentation day. I thought the situation and pressure I had been thrown into were exactly same as the Time edits were placed in editing their pieces. I’m not sure I’ve an absolutely right grip of the word, “Instant omniscience,” but spending 40 years in ad business, and acting a presentation master, I can concur with its feeling and substance perhaps more than you can, that’s why I wrote “I’m interested in the word, ‘Instant omniscience’” at the beginning of my question. – Yoichi Oishi Mar 23 '13 at 20:32
I agree with you. Your extensive experience in preparing presentations for your advertising firm's clients is aptly analogous to Mr. Trillin's experience at Time magazine. I can think of at least one analog: you both had to approach each task as generalists, but complete the task sounding like specialists. One difference between you and Trillin is that you had several weeks to prepare for the task, whereas Trillin probably did not. I'm assuming that he had a rough draft in front of him which he was required to polish. You, on the other hand, had to craft a presentation from scratch! – rhetorician Mar 28 '13 at 16:47

"Learned fool" is provided in the Tanaka Corpus. "Clever fool" is another possibility; see related question: Is there a word for "clever fool"?

A tempting answer might be "sophomore," which has come to mean "wise idiot," but this etymology is questionable and the word more often connotes a second-year student.

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A very simple street-level equivalent for the Japanese is "book-smart".

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Hi, Frupert. I like this answer, but you could make it significantly stronger by including a definition of book-smart from a reputable reference work (and linking to it if it is online). If you perform that extra step, I will gladly upvote your answer. – Sven Yargs Aug 1 at 5:54
The only decent answer here. – Joe Blow Oct 2 at 19:31
This doesn't really answer the question. A "book-smart" person is someone who has learned lots of things from studying and not many things from experience. A book-smart person could be a generalist, that is, book-smart about many topics. The two ideas are orthogonal. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Oct 2 at 19:50
Agree with Mr. Shiny. Book-smart means "able to succeed scholastically, and not necessarily in the real world" or "has learned from books and not from experience, so does not function well outside of intellectual/academic endeavors" and has no connotation of extreme specialization in intellectual function. – WhatRoughBeast Oct 2 at 20:19

Firstly, it's unclear from your question if you think "instant omniscience" has a similar meaning to "expert’s ignorance". (Or if you were simply saying, for some reason one made you think of the other.)

(1) Regarding "expert’s ignorance" the only real way to say this in English is: "narrow specialist" which you hear commonly.

"Book-smart" is somewhat similar: it's someone who has great academic learning, but no "street smarts" (no practical non-acadamic smarts). The "absent-minded professor" type (or indeed just the "nutty professor") which can be understood literally, is again similar but not really what you mean.

(2) Regarding "instant omniscience", the (horrible, appalingly-written) article you quote quite simply meant "an instant expert".

So, if you imagine me sitting in Einstein's office, I would have on the desk in front of me (let's say) all the latest cutting-edge papers in physics, at my fingertips ... I'd be a kind of instant-expert in the cutting edge of physics.

Note clearly that "instant omniscience" is, basically, a mistake: if the writer in question had had an editor on the article, they would have just changed it to "instant expert".

Your example of being an "instant expert" (or perhaps having "instant omniscience" in the field) from the ad agency days is quite clear and perfect.

(Funnily enough I noticed people saying literally exactly that in the ad world .. "you have to be an instant expert for these meetings" - that's very astute.)

(3) Regarding "instant omniscience" (or "instant expert") versus the Japanese "expert’s ignorance". There is no connection between the two. They have totally different meanings.

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I think I know well difference between 'instant omniscience' and 学者バカー expert's ignorance. Actually they are irrelevant. I'm saying the question just popped up into my mind when I read the New Yorker article. I described my take and impression of 'instant omniscience' in my preceding comment introducing my experience of being in 'Madmen's business more than 20 years ago. – Yoichi Oishi Oct 2 at 22:47
Got it, as I said "if you were simply saying, for some reason one made you think of the other..." – Joe Blow Oct 2 at 23:19

protected by Mitch Oct 2 at 20:27

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