What’s the first recorded use of the term well-rounded as it refers to being competent or trained in several fields, e.g., from astronomy to literature to social dancing to cookery?

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    That isn't really a good definition of 'well-rounded'. Someone with skills in Ancient Sanskrit, plumbing and tightrope walking would not be 'well-rounded' - they would just have several unconnected skills. – DJClayworth May 25 '16 at 16:13

I think that Josh61's example from 1833 may be the earliest Google Books match for well-rounded in a figurative sense in which "symmetrically proportioned" arguably begins to imply "balanced owing to competence on multiple topics." I repeat that occurrence, which is from the preface (dated December 23, 1833) to The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, volume 22 (1833), at slightly greater length:

To cherish kindly feelings, and to draw more closely the cords of affection that should bind all mankind as one great family, is the object of many a scene or sketch from social life; and a lively anecdote often illustrates a point or principle more effectually than a well-rounded discourse: for men are better taught by example than precept.

It seems fairly clear, however, that this usage was a logical development of earlier usage that figuratively describes a form of speech or style of writing as "well-rounded"—specifically in the set phrase "well-rounded periods," where periods means, literally, "sentences."

Well-rounded periods

Figurative usage of well-rounded in connection with sentences goes back considerably farther than Etymology Online seems to realize. From a review of George Harvest, A Collection of Sermons, preached occasionally on various Subjects, in The Critical Review (January 1764):

The sermons now before us, written by the very ingenious and learned Mr. George Harvest, are amongt the few valuable performances that do honour to the present age, an bid fair for the approbation of posterity. Those amongst our readers who look only for smooth and well-rounded periods, florid declamation, or laboured antithesis, will be greatly disappointed in the perusal of these discourses, which appeal not so much to our passions as to our reason; ...

From a letter by James Beattie, dated November 16, 1766, in William Forbes, An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, L.L.D (1806):

I might compare myself, in relation to many other infirmities, to many other great men; but if fortune is not influenced in my favour, by the particulars already enumerated, I shall despair of ever recommending myself to her good graces. I once had some thought of soliciting her patronage on the score of my resembling great men in their good qualities; but I had so little to say on that subject, that I could not for my life furnish matter for one well-rounded period: and you know a short ill-turned speech is very improper to be used in an address to a female deity.

From Thomas O'Beirne, Candid and Impartial Narrative of the Transactions of the Fleet, Under the Command of Lord Howe (1779):

He [the author] shall endeavour as much as possible to avoid a technical style; for he wishes to be understood by every class of readers: yet, at the same time, he must apologize to the public for obtruding on them the rough unpolished language of a seaman, littled versed in the elegancies of composition, and unambitious of the praise of a brilliant diction, or the smooth flow of well-rounded periods.

From a journal entry of June 15, 1788, in Arthur Young, Travels in the Kingdom of France During the Years 1787, 1788 and 1789 (1793):

Mons. Bernarve, a very young man, from Grenoble, spoke without notes with great warmth and animation. Some of his periods were so well rounded, and so eloquently delivered, that he met with much applause, several members crying— bravo!

From Joseph Neef, The Method of Instructing Children Rationally in the Arts of Writing and Reading (1813):

The range of words at my command becomes wider and wider at every step, and I have consequently less trouble in saying what I mean to express, and I can assure all those who perceive oddity or awkwardness in the commencement, that before they shall reach the end of the second volume they will be served with very elegant sentences, witty sayings, poetical effusions, harmonious constructions, well rounded periods, and a great many other nice things too tedious to enumerate.

And from John Hobhouse, The Substance of Some Letters Written by an Englishman Resident at Paris During the Last Reign of the Emperor Napoleon, volume 2 (1816):

He [Louis XVIII] will draw up a diplomatic declaration with precision and elegance, while he is incapable of obtaining or preserving any influence in foreign courts. His moderate policy, couched in well rounded periods, shall meet with every encomium, and kingdoms be disposed of without the slightest attention to his paternal remonstrances, or the smallest regard for his interests: in short, Louis XVIII.

Well-rounded minds

The earliest reference to a human mind (rather than body) as "well-rounded" occurs somewhat surprisingly late. From "So They Say," in The L.A.W. Bulletin and Good Roads (August 26, 1898):

But even a well-rounded limb is not so desirable [in a bicyclist], all in all, as a well-rounded mind, and if it may be so termed, a well-rounded heart. But let the well-roundedness of things end here, for the well-rounded spinal-column of the scorcher is an object not to be commended nor emulated.

And the use of well-rounded to describe broad-based competence is later still. From John Parker, "Work and the Man," in The Michigan Technic (January 1912):

If one criticism more than another applies to the men of our profession, it is that they aren't men first, and engineers afterwards, but that a well-rounded balanced manhood is made to wait until a man has made a professional success of himself. Of course there are exceptions; but these exceptions simply serve to prove the rule, since these few well-grounded, broadly cultivated men with a surplus of humanity are the men who stand at the very top of our profession.


Speaking of personality, one notes another element in the success of the well-rounded man ; namely, that he very speedily recognizes that since business must be done by human beings, the human equation is paramount. ...


Over the years from 1764 to 1912, we can see the figurative notion of well-rounded evolving from application to particular sentences to general discourse to the human mind or personality to a person's breadth of experience.

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Well-rounded (adj.), in a figurative sense is from mid 1800:

  • 1796, "symmetrically proportioned, complete in all parts," from well (adv.) + past participle of round (v.). Figurative sense is from mid-19c.


The following is from The Mirror of Literature, 1833:

  • ...is the object of many a scene or sketch from social life ; and a lively anecdote often illustrates a point or principle more effectually than a well-rounded discourse: for men are better taught by example than precept.
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