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What do you call a person who despite being very clever in one field, e.g. math or physics, behaves very unwisely or impractical in real life?
I know some people who are very well educated and can solve difficult scientific problems, but they seem to belong to some different society. They can easily be cheated by any fraud, they are often absentminded so they lose their belonging all the time etc.
Do you have a word for this kind of people?

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"Absentminded professor" (not one word) and "nerd" (implies social awkwardness, not foolishness) sprang to mind, but neither is a perfect fit. – Marthaª Mar 23 '11 at 13:16
The time has come to borrow the German Fachidiot. – RegDwigнt Mar 23 '11 at 14:01
Isn't that a Nerd ? – mplungjan Mar 23 '11 at 14:39
There was of course James I & VI who was said to be "the wisest fool in Christendom, meaning him wise in small things, but a fool in weighty affairs" – Henry Mar 23 '11 at 16:01
@RegDwight: Oh, thanks, when I start to learn German it will be great to know this word from the very beginning. – Edwin Ross Mar 23 '11 at 17:41

13 Answers 13

up vote 14 down vote accepted

I've heard people like that described as book smart. It is sometimes used as the opposite of street-smart.

Being able to succeed scholastically, and not necessarily in the real world.

Urban Dictionary

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++ Probably the most suitable term, along with naive. – Ed Guiness Mar 23 '11 at 14:00
There are so many interesting versions and it is a pity that I can chose only one. – Edwin Ross Mar 23 '11 at 17:36

An idiot savant, perhaps?

idiot sa·vant (n.)
1. a person affected with a mental disability (as autism or mental retardation) who exhibits exceptional skill or brilliance in some limited field (as mathematics or music)
2. a person who is highly knowledgeable about one subject but knows little about anything else

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That's still two words ;) – Alain Mar 23 '11 at 12:51
@Alain: it's not the worst fit, and you can easily drop the idiot part and just say savant. – RegDwigнt Mar 23 '11 at 14:03
I don't think that this meets the OP's requirements at all, as an idiot savant is a person who is actually mentally retarded, but has exaggerated ability in some narrow specialty. That's a very different thing from someone who has normal intelligence but a lack of practical common sense. – JSBձոգչ Mar 23 '11 at 14:08
@JSBangs It is not always used in a technical sense; in fact, the technical sense doesn't exist anymore. The second definition given above suffices for the OP's purposes. – Uticensis Mar 23 '11 at 14:10
Idiot savant is just like the words moron, imbecile, idiot, in that regard; they used to designate very precise IQ levels, but have become generalist terms to mean "stupid". – Uticensis Mar 23 '11 at 14:15

You might be looking for sophomore, which (according to some sources) can be traced to the Greek words sophos, meaning "wise", and moros, meaning "fool".

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Etymology rarely has anything to do with current usage. The adjective form sophomoric does have a disparaging meaning, but it means something akin to immature, with no cleverness implied. The noun sophomore doesn't even carry that meaning; it simply means a not-quite-beginner student. – Marthaª Mar 23 '11 at 17:27

Such people could be said to live in an Ivory Tower

ivory tower (plural ivory towers) (idiomatic)

A sheltered, overly-academic existence or perspective, implying a disconnection or lack of awareness of reality or practical considerations.

Such a proposal looks fine from an ivory tower, but it could never work in real life.


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What do you call a person who despite being very clever in one field, e.g. math or physics, behaves very unwisely or impractical in real life?


How many people fall for 'buy-one-get-one-free' offers (why isn't the price simply reduced) or 'super-size' deals?

I remember an old saying 'penny-wise, pound-foolish'

With tongue, embedded in cheek,


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Actually, I think "Normal" - although most people wouldn't 'get it', is bang on. My observation has been that the smartest people I've known invariable have an equal-and-opposite (as it were) area of in-expertise. – mickeyf Mar 23 '11 at 13:45
The OP is looking for a word to describe people who are abnormally normal. – intuited Apr 12 '11 at 7:29

I would describe that type of person as having a 'lack of common sense' but I can't think of a single word to express the concept.

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The word hubris comes to mind; you wouldn't apply it to an individual but to his/her actions. Also, it has a connotation of arrogance rather than inadvertent behaviour; I am not sure this is what you're after.

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Perhaps an intellectual would cover it, although this word more usually means experts in politics or economics who are likewise clueless about everyday reality.

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Unworldly or otherworldly are the best single words I can come up with. There's no strong implication of expertise in a narrow field as there would be with idiot savant though.

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Autistic could be a word I would use in such cases, but I would mean it figuratively.

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Perhaps if this were the 1950s... Even figuratively, that is fairly harsh given what we know today about the condition/spectrum. – Michael Easter Mar 23 '11 at 10:41
@Michael Easter: The OP didn't ask for a word that would not be harsh. – kiamlaluno Mar 23 '11 at 10:44
Although autistic people are sometimes incredibly smart that is not always the case, and viceversa. In that sense Billare answer (idiot savant) is much better. – nico Mar 23 '11 at 10:46

Egghead has a touch of both the positive and negative connotations you’re looking for. Maybe not enough. Dreamer, daydreamer and visionary are along the same lines.

The absent-minded professor stereotype you describe is more or less what people conjure up when you say philosopher—though of course that word denotes a particular job or field of study.

Such a person is usually eccentric too.

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Literally, there's sophomore - σοφός (sophos, “wise”) + μωρός (mōros, “fool”).

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Oh, you're talking about Professor Calculus.

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