Idiot-Savant: Oxymoron?

Reading Quicksilver, I’m struck by how often the term savant is used, in a completely non-pejorative way, to describe the great Natural Philosophers of the time (such as Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, etc). The only way I’ve ever heard the term was in conjunction with the word “idiot,” as in “Idiot-Savant,” used most often in the context of an otherwise mentally challenged/impaired individual (e.g. autistic) who has some sort of virtuosic talent in a single, limited area.

Naturally, this got me curious as to what the actual definition of savant is. From dictionary.com:

  1. A learned person; a scholar

  2. an idiot savant

The first definition fits with how it is used in the narrative of the book, but that second definition got my curiosity going once again, so looked up idiot:

  1. A foolish or stupid person

  2. A human being destitute of the ordinary intellectual powers, whether congenital, developmental, or accidental; commonly, a person without understanding from birth

The second of the two definitions above (by all means not all of the possibilities) seems to me the most accurate for how the term is commonly used today (unless of course you are using it as an insult).

And this is where (why) I ask the question, “Is the term idiot-savant an oxymoron?” Of course, before we can properly answer the question, we really should know what an oxymoron is. Back to dictionary.com:

  1. A rhetorical figure in which incongruous or contradictory terms are combined, as in a deafening silence and a mournful optimist.

  2. A figure in which an epithet of a contrary signification is added to a word; e. g., cruel kindness; laborious idleness.

Using either of these definitions, I think that oxymoron is an accurate description for the expression idiot savant.

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