What the Heck is Sapience?
First, in honor of yesterday’s rant on pizza, a veggie pizza made with Vegan Gourmet mozzarella. I forgot to take a photo of it after it came out of the broiler for a minute (when the cheese got all bubbly and melty), but trust me when I say it was beautiful and most delectable. We used the DeLonghi indoor grill for the asparagus, zucchini, yellow squash, onions and shiitakes. As for the sauce, I finally found a store-bought bottle I like for pizza: San Marzano’s Marinara.
And now, on to sapience.
When Animal Person reader Chico asked for some history on the word "sapience," my reaction was "that’s a word?" I was going in the direction of Homo sapiens, without an actual plan for my next step, and I wasn’t that far off, as an alternate spelling is sapiens.
I consult my trusty Oxford English Dictionary and discover that this is one of those words that started meaning one thing, then evolved to mean nearly the opposite, but the original meaning was still sometimes used. Originally, way, way back in 1377, it meant wisdom or understanding, and more specifically of the spiritual or divine variety by the 14 and 1500s. But the 1600s saw a turnaround of sorts, with sapience used ironically as: would-be wisdom, as in Milton’s 1642 "This is a piece of sapience not worth the brain of a fruit-trencher."
From 1386 to 1796 there were a handful of sightings of sapience that had a different meaning and are now obsolete, including:
- 1362-1563: references to "sapiential books" of the Bible, which is the apocryphal book of ‘Wisdom,’ that I never even heard of.
- 1386-Chaucer used the word to mean: an attribute of God.
- 1651-Hobbes (and others in the 1600s) used it to contradistinguish from prudence. Prudence is choosing what is good and sapience is knowing what is true.
- 1667 saw Milton using it to mean: correct taste or judgment. Others followed with the same usage up to 1796.
From 1836-1901 there were several uses that meant wisdom, meanwhile 1791 and 1893 said au contraire, best demonstrated by Morley’s quote: "Wisdom is the real article and sapience is the sham article."
I thought maybe sapient might be able to help, but it has a similar history of meaning wise when it appeared on the scene in 1471, then ending up in 1886 meaning ironical (which by the way really is a word). And there are some random other references throughout the centuries, including several in the 1970s that meant "pertaining to or characteristic of modern man, Homo sapiens." BINGO–but short-lived and not to be seen since.
These days, we seem to use sapience exclusively to mean wisdom (actually, "great" wisdom). Every online dictionary I checked defined it similarly so the days of sapience meaning would-be wisdom appear to be over.
But who knows what the future will hold for sapience . . .