I want to express concisely an impish attitude some clever scientists have. I want these properties:

  • Explicitly playful (or maybe mischievous)
  • Intellectual, but in action: Not always verbal, as in witty
  • Ethically neutral: No connotations of underhandedness, as in crafty

In particular, I read a biography about a scientist who would crack his coworkers' safes. He did not use his knowledge malevolently, but he also shouldn't have been doing it. When a coworker suspected an intruder stole files, the scientist let him panic for a while before confessing.

Is there a single word for "intellectually impish"?

  • 1
    Sounds like Feynman. This sort of prank is common at tech schools; see also the Caltech-MIT rivalry. These pranks are called “hacks” at MIT, but I don't think there's a word for it in general English. Most folks seem to get the meaning well enough from prank in context. Apr 25, 2013 at 6:09
  • @BraddSzoyne: It was Feynman! Would the one committing a hack be a hacker? I'm hesitant to use prank or prankster, because I would also like to describe magicians with this word. A magician plays on one's beliefs that something can't be done and then by illusion or skill convinces one that it can.
    – user39720
    Apr 25, 2013 at 6:32
  • Yes, that subculture would call such a prankster a hacker, but the word has too many other connotations to be understood that way by the general population. Apr 25, 2013 at 6:38
  • 1
    By the way, if you're interested in this sort of thing, you may want to check out The Jargon File, which is all about hacker language and culture (in the sense used here). Apr 25, 2013 at 7:07
  • I think "cunning" has impish undertones and certainly is more action than verbal.
    – Ste
    Apr 25, 2013 at 11:20

2 Answers 2


Cunning and sly are both very good; but since you ask specifically for impish, may I suggest a word derived from the very archetype of the mischievous imp:

     that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?

Puckish, too, is a word often applied to Feynman:

... this play [QED] is a tour-de-force that captures his unique and puckish genius. —Publisher's blurb

Feynman was widely known for his insatiable curiosity and puckish sense of humor. —Colored Reflections (blog)

During this talk Feynman drilled—with impressive prescience and the puckish humor he was well-known for—right to the heart of the question he had raised. —I'm Working on That, Wiliam Shatner

He was puckish—cracking safes, demonstrating the cause of the Challenger disaster on national television with a C-clamp and kindergarten words, naming one of his books in mockery of Princeton's high tea. —Metamerist (blog)

  • I like puckish! Impish feels insulting (like hooligan) when used on an intellectual figure, but I think the literary background of puckish detracts from that some. Those descriptions are exactly what I want to convey. The word seems to fit pretty well with another figure I want to describe: Raymond Smullyan, of Knight-and-Knave Paradox fame. I don't like the connection with knavish in the quote above, but after looking through definitions from several sources it doesn't seem common. Will accept answer tomorrow, if no words better capturing ethical-neutrality or intelligence arise!
    – user39720
    Apr 29, 2013 at 8:37

I think sly fits the bill. The third dictionary.com definition defines it as

playfully artful, mischievous, or roguish

And, in fact, since (according to the comments on your question) you're referring to Richard Feynman, it might be helpful to mention that a number of examples can be found in the wild of people using this exact term to describe Feynman (this is clearly not a scientific survey by any means, but just a collection of examples).

For example, in the introduction to QED A. Zee writes

I chuckled a few times as Feynman got in some sly digs at other physicists.

In a forbes.com article the author refers in passing to

a bit of Richard Feynman sly magic

In a review of a comic featuring Feynman, the reviewer writes

The cover alone almost feels more real than photographs of the man, having boiled down his essence into this inquisitive, sly smirk, the outward representation of the scientific curiosity that drove him every day of his life.

In a scientific paper building upon some of Feynman's work, the author writes

This result came out eight years after Feynman's death, but I can imagine him looking at the equation with a sly smile.

And that's just some of them. A google search reveals a number of other examples.

  • Sly is a good word, particularly for the way he pulled the prank with the safes. But sly also has a secretive connotation that I'm not always looking for. +1 for the well-researched answer, though.
    – user39720
    Apr 29, 2013 at 8:04

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