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Saturday, Oct 19, 2019

Shashi Tharoor’s word of the week: Opsimath

You don’t have to master Ancient Greek at 65 to be an opsimath!

columns Updated: Oct 12, 2019 19:37 IST
Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor
Hindustan Times
(Illustration: Gajanan Nirphale)

Opsimath (noun), a person who begins, or continues, to study or learn late in life. Also an old student, a late learner.

When it came to reading, she was definitely an opsimath, as she had never cracked open the cover of a book until she was well past the age of 40.

The word is derived from the Greek words opsé, meaning ‘late’, and manthánō, meaning ‘learn’. It sounds like a term of approval, but it was not always; for some centuries it carried a connotation of laziness, for an opsimath was one had waited too long to proceed on the essential path of the acquisition of knowledge. Today there is much more respect for opsimaths, like the remarkable 98-year-old lady in Kerala who passed her school leaving examinations last year, having been denied an education by her conservative parents nine decades ago. In the West, “opsimath clubs” have , emerged, hailing such role models as the former American slave Grandma Moses, or for the more classically-inclined, Cato the Elder, who learned Greek only at the age of 80. It is said the great 19th century French writer Emile Zola was an opsimath who had read the immortal works of Stendhal, Flaubert, Balzac, the Goncourts and Taine, whom French intellectuals of his generation swore by, only late in life, much after his contemporaries.

I have always believed it is never too late to learn; I pride myself on my conviction that I learn something new every day, whether it is a word, a fact, an insight or even a piece of trivia. But to take up an entirely new subject and study it seriously in late adulthood does not come easily. Those who make the effort are well-rewarded. It is said that opsimathy practised by retired people can help ward off dementia and senility, by rejuvenating the synapses in our brains as we learn new things, particularly (but not only) new languages.

In India, adult literacy classes are used to reach out to those, especially women, who were pulled out of school early by misguided (and often unlettered) parents who wanted them to stay at home and help in domestic chores. Such people, who often had no choice in the matter, are happy for the opportunity to resume their studies and acquire such basic skills as being able to read the destination on a bus or the name of a street. You don’t have to be mastering Ancient Greek or plasma physics at 65 in order to be an opsimath!

First Published: Oct 12, 2019 19:37 IST

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