Wiseacre and wisenheimer | (S)word Sharpening

Just like when we understand how to wield and use a sword, the proper use of a word is a powerful weapon. Sharpen your mind and your character with a deeper understanding of a word.

It is becoming more apparent to me that nobody knows anything for sure at all whatsoever. I am chief among those who know nothing, but pray allow me to expose the specks in others’ eyes…

Okay, I will not; I shall not. In fact, I cannot, because I only have anecdotal evidence, and prattling about personal gripes will paint me a jerk.

I will turn the guns on myself instead, because through my own experience of being a wiseacre through lack of experience has taught me now to conduct myself as if I am a novice in all things. First, though, let us understand from where the word wiseacre comes, and why it is amusing and damning in one breath.  

The origins of wiseacre

Maybe you know a Wisenheimer in your life. A wisenheimer could be nearly literally translated from the German as a “knowledge asylum” (wissen = knowledge or “to know”; heim = home, or asylum). Rather, it seems, the source of this word comes simply from adding “wise” to –enheimer, a common German family name suffix (Guggenheimer, Oppenheimer, for example). Calling someone a wisenheimer in the English-speaking world is to jeer at someone for being a smart aleck or a know-it-all. 

Then we have the Dutch origin of wiseacre: wijssegger, or “soothsayer.” By definition, a soothsayer is “a speaker of truth or wisdom,” but the word is commonly used, methinks, to describe a “prognosticator,” or one who gives an indication of something in advance.

Is not the reason we put on the air of being a wisenheimer or a wijssegger is for others to seek us as knowledge asylums and as soothsayers? Or, it may even be that we want to sooth ourselves of our own insecurities of the unknown by playing the act of being full of knowledge and wisdom. That certainly was me in my youth.

Wise beyond my acres

Seeing photos of times past is often a treat, yet when I look back on my life through old photos, I often think to myself, “Boy, I knew so little of the world back then. I knew nothing!”

Back then, I thought I knew it all. Looking back at the back-then, I realize that I knew nothing at all, relatively speaking. I was a wiseacre. The acres of wisdom I thought I had were rather gewgawish claims.

Times where I settled into the idea that I was an expert – or having knowledge proven by experience – were followed shortly by humbling moments of inexperience. When I felt I was the next Hemingway, I then had non-native English speaking colleagues point out my grammatical errors. When I felt I was the Sean McVeigh of American football coaching in Europe, I was then outcoached by a competitor who learned American football through the Madden video games. The days when I assumed I had life and its intricacies handled was when I would be tripped up by the most mellow of life’s hurdles.

The moment I rest in my wheelhouse – or the area where my expertise and knowledge shine brightest –, the said house gets dated and the wheel gets rusty. Someone will come along and reveal to me that I am lacking in my supposed area of knowledge and expertise. It is imperative for wiseacres like me to keep the wheel spinning.

Wrestle with what you know

The best preachers and teachers from whom I learn will, prior to presenting their area of expertise or knowledge in a public forum, say something to the effect of “what I am about to lecture to you is something I myself am wrestling with.” I appreciate this willingness of these persons to stand as experts but to act as sincere novices of the topic at hand. “Wrestling” with a concept is to grapple with it, to strive against it, and to, eventually, throw it and pin it down.

I find myself in a better position to learn and to benefit others of the things that I am good at when I am a wrestler. I have been writing and editing for ten years now, and still – and even until my hand can no longer write or my eyes no longer read – I strive to understand my own writing skills and to know the English language more. Admitting to a writer for whom I am editing their work that I am stuck on how to enhance or fix a problematic sentence of theirs because of the complexities and ambiguities of English grammar has rendered me stupefied has proven to be of more value to myself and to the cooperation at hand. To me it offers a moment to wrestle with a difficult concept in the hope of pinning it down and understanding it in the future. To the other it shows that I am willing to investigate the syntax or grammar issue and toil with it. The wiseacre in me could have brashly made a correction to the text without the assurance of research. Had I been wrong about the correction, I would have been made a great fool.

In the meekness of wisdom

Reverting to the novice stage of learning and living has proven to be far more rewarding and beneficial towards my career. The key to keeping something pinned down is to lay constant and binding pressure on it, and so it is too with having knowledge. I never want to settle in expertise. I want to venture as novice in all that I do.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 

James 3:13

Leave a Reply