Smatterers or Scholars?

Found – an obscure book by a forgotten journalist. In the 1920s and up to the early 1950s his short ‘thought pieces’ were syndicated in the UK and as far as Australia. This tradition of coffee break columns is still with us – now it’s Robert Crampton rather than Robert Power. His ideas are oddly prescient given the plethora of information now available. The answer to the second part of Dr Johnson’s question is known by everybody – and it’s not the Encyclopaedia Britannica! This is from Two-minute talks. Second volume. Robert Power. London: S. W. Partridge [1925] pp.45-46.Other ‘talks’ have titles such as ‘Poppy Friendships’, ‘Blistering Tongues’, ‘In the W.P.B.’, ‘Rich Poverty’, ‘Are you Popular?’, ‘Poachers’ and ‘Rubbernecks.’


Time was when we used the word “smack” to mean “taste,” and thus a taster became known as a “smacker”. It is not difficult for a generation of slovenly talkers to corrupt a word, and thus “smacker” or taster has become “smatterer,” one who has only a slight, superficial knowledge, a sciolist.

It is a pity that we have not a more handy word to describe such people, for they are very numerous in this age. Perhaps this multiplicity is due to the fact that there are now so many things about which one is expected to know something. Perhaps it is becoming impossible to be a scholar, and that we can hope, at best, to be only a superior smattered.

I trust not.

There is no disgrace in being a smatterer if one has not had an opportunity of becoming a scholar. The taut arises when a smatterer thinks he is a profound scholar, and behaves accordingly.

Old Dr. Johnson laid it down that knowledge is of two kinds – either we know a thing, or we know where we can obtain information about it.
In these days, when so many of us are obliged to be smatterers, this definition is of the greatest importance. If we have not the time to acquire a profound knowledge of a subject, the next best thing is to know where we can find the knowledge. If we know neither the subject not the sources of information on it, then we shall assuredly take a bad toss if we attempt to talk on it.

A smatterer relying upon his smattering is leaning upon that little learning which is “a dangerous thing”.

But while we tolerate smattering, no man should be entirely content with it. To know “a little about everything” is a fair equipment for life, provided, in addition, we know “everything about one thing.” And that “one thing” should be the thing by which we earn our daily bread.

We may be smatterers on every other subject, but here, at all events, we must be scholars. To be a smatterer where one’s livelihood is concerned, is to be a mere taster of the world’s good things, to be ever disappointed with our lot – always a taster but never a feaster.

Knowledge,however, confers superiority, and superiority commands a higher value then mediocrity.

Smatterer or scholar? Where the means of livelihood are concerned there can be but one answer for any man worth his salt.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *