Dusty Phrases

Hi! Welcome to “Dusty Phrases.” You will find below an ancient phrase in one language or another, along with its English translation. You may also find the power to inspire your friends or provoke dread among your enemies.

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Homo unius libri


(a) man of one book

This is a terrific Latin insult and it is centuries old. However, the phrase was not always intended to be an insult. From wiki:

Homo unius libri (‘(a) man of one book’) is a Latin phrase attributed to Thomas Aquinas by bishop Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667), who claimed that Aquinas is reputed to have employed the phrase “hominem unius libri timeo” (‘I fear the man of a single book’).

The poet Robert Southey recalled the tradition in which the quotation became embedded:

When St Thomas Aquinas was asked in what manner a man might best become learned, he answered, “By reading one book”; “meaning,” says Bishop Taylor, “that an understanding entertained with several objects is intent upon neither, and profits not.” The homo unius libri is indeed proverbially formidable to all conversational figurantes. Like your sharp-shooter, he knows his piece perfectly, and is sure of his shot.

The phrase was in origin a dismissal of eclecticism, i.e. the “fear” is of the formidable intellectual opponent who has dedicated himself to and become a master in a single chosen discipline. In this first sense, the phrase was used by Methodist founder John Wesley, referring to himself, with “one book” taken to mean the Bible. However, the phrase today most often refers to the interpretation of expressing “fear” of the opinions of the illiterate man who has “only read a single book”.

John Wesley invoked the phrase in this sense and declared himself to be a “homo unius libri”, the “one book” being the Bible.

3 thoughts on “Dusty Phrases

    1. Thank you and I agree! This phrase forced me to consider the pros and cons of “depth of knowledge” vs. “breadth of knowledge.” Sometimes it is better to be an expert at one thing than knowledgeable about many things.

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