My Awkward Past with “Heuristic”

If legislatures and courts are looking at dictionary definitions, it’s not the definitions that are swaying their opinions. To quote the 2013 study* [analyzing the Court’s dictionary use in criminal, civil, and corporate law cases] again, “The image of dictionary usage as heuristic and authoritative is a little more than a mirage.” But try convincing people upset over the court’s decision to redefine marriage that that’s the case.

— Kory Stamper, Word by Word

Archimedes figures it out. Now I have too.

Heuristic—I confess that, until recently, I’ve never known the meaning of this word. It’s a rather embarrassing thing to admit because heuristic and I have something of a past. See, we used to run into one another every so often in something I was forced to read for grad school. We’d exchange passing glances, acknowledging  each other’s presence, but the encounter would be awkward, like running into a former classmate or friend-of-a-friend you were acquainted with didn’t really know (and didn’t really care to). Simply put, I was just too lazy to make the effort and look it up.

So, you can imagine my discomfort when I came across the word in the above passage from Kory Stamper’s Word by Word a few weeks ago. Suddenly, the status quo would no longer suffice. I run a blog about words and dictionaries, for god sakes! The writing was on the wall. My relationship with heuristic would have to change.

So, I made the effort. Instead of succumbing to laziness I made the effort. I grabbed my compact Oxford English Dictionary like I had so many times before and looked that fucker up. Admittedly, this time it felt special.

Heuristic, says the OED, is the adjective form of the word heuretic, which refers to the branch of logic that deals with the art of discovery or invention. Therefore, heuristic means “serving to find out or discover.”

Mmmm, hokay. I have no reason to doubt that (those OED peeps generally know what they’re talking about), but that definition seems less than satisfying. In search of more answers, I consulted Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, my go-to for reasons inexplicable. It said: “helping to discover or learn; sometimes used to designate a method of education is which the pupil is trained to find out things for [his or her] self.”

Now that makes more sense, and it also suggests that my decision to up-end tradition and finally learn the meaning of heuristic was heuristic in and of itself! How cool is that?!?! In fact, one could argue that this entire blog is one big heuristic exercise!

And what about the etymology? (I thought you’d never ask….)

Heuristic, says the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories, comes from the Greek word heuriskein meaning “to find.” The (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins (DWO) says the same, but before it does so, it tells the familiar story of the Greek mathematician Archimedes and his clever solution to finding the weight of a crown make for King Hiero II of Syracuse. At the end of that story, Archimedes is purported to have yelled “heureka” or (I have found!), which the DWO also attributes to heuriskein. While sounding somewhat far-fetched, Eric Partridge’s Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English associates the same Greek words (heureka and heuriskein) with heuristic, but without the story of Archimedes.


* That 2013 study “found that the justices tended to use dictionaries to bolster an opinion that was already held, rather than confirming the objective meaning of a word.” (Stamper, p. 250)

Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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