- One who has a considerable gift or skill for a particular discipline
Have you ever met someone you thought was completely ordinary, only for them to surprise you by suddenly exhibiting a wealth of knowledge about something? Maybe it happened when your friend unveiled an impressive project they had been working on, or your local barista dropped a gem of trivia in casual conversation one morning. In either case, you would almost think that this person was hiding their expertise from you except that perhaps their talent is so niche that, more likely, it just never came up before. What you discovered in those instances was a savant hiding in plain sight.
A savant is a person who, though typical in every other respect, has an unparalleled mastery of a certain, usually specialized ability or talent. In most other aspects of their personality and set of skills, savants display only average aptitude, but they are so adept at their specialty that they demonstrate a command that is well above average. The incredible facility that savants have may be due to a particular level of interest, or it might be because the type of thinking that that field requires comes easily to them. Whatever the reason, savants often rank among the vanguards of their field, whether they pursue it professionally or purely for enjoyment.
Many times, the word savant is seen preceded by an adjective or noun that notes an area of study or knowledge, illustrating which specialization distinguishes the individual it describes. But at other times, it is employed as a description on its own, and the reader or listener is meant to infer from the context what the savant's defining skill is. In either case, it is usually clear what skill affords them their savant status by the fact that it stands both above their other abilities, and above those of most other members of their field.
Example: When their car broke down, to his friends' surprise, Erik proved his status as an automotive savant once he popped the hood and inspected the engine.
Example: While the software security researcher was a savant at discovering critical bugs, his unremarkable appearance and sartorial manner did not betray his brilliance.
Before its adaptation into English in the early 1700s to mean "known for learning," savant was a French word literally translated as "one who knows." This term came from the verb savoir, meaning "to know." This, in turn, derived from the Vulgar Latin and, earlier, Latin word sapere, meaning "to be wise."
Savante: As savant comes from French, which has gendered pronouns, savante entered the English lexicon along with its masculine cousin to mean a female savant. This usage, however, is a bit archaic, although in modern language it can be used interchangeably with savant to describe a female adept at a single skill.
Example: The musical savante played with such effortless technical brilliance that the conservatory admitted her at age 15.
From Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins:
But aren't all great quests folly? El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth and the search for intelligent life in the cosmos-- we know what's out there. It's what isn't that truly compels us. Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short car rides and regional jet lags - four states and twelve hundred miles traversed in an afternoon - but true quests aren't measured in time or distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant - sail for Asia and stumble on America - and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.
In this passage, Walter attempts to convey the difficulties of exploring in the modern era when there is such an abundance of already-discovered information. He does so by outlining two paths to discovery: that of daring explorers hoping to stumble upon discovery by chance, "serendipitous savants," and the "scarecrows and tin men," referring to the iconic The Wizard of Oz characters, who unknowingly have unsolved mysteries within their grasp.
- A savant is ordinary save in one area.
- A coupon-finding savant will save on everything they buy.
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of savant. Did you use savant in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.