Definition of Mastery LO28162

From: Fred Nickols (
Date: 04/05/02

Responding to AM de Lange in LO28157 --

Earlier, in response to Sensaru's question, "What is mastery?", I wrote,
"Only a master knows."

At replied:

>Greetings dear Fred,
>It is just as sharp as the answer of Ray.
>I could have sworn master(y) came from the Saxon word "maest"=most. But
>the dictionary says it comes from the Latin "magister"=boss. Yet there is
>stil hope because "magis"=more in Latin. Check the spelling because
>In Greek "magikos"=magic.
>Mastery is magic.

Dear At:

As is often the case, you drove me to my own dictionary. Actually, you
drove me to four of them; you see, I find that different dictionaries
present different definitions -- and, sometimes, they present different
etymologies. In this case, they do indeed present some variation in their
definitions but the etymologies are consistent. Mine (all four of them)
show mastery as a noun and its base, master, as a noun, verb and
adjective. All tie to the Latin magister, meaning a master, chief or
leader. (As a former Chief Petty Officer, I kind of like that.)

So, Issue # 1 - Does your dictionary really show magister as equaling
"boss" or is that your translation?

Issue # 2 - the logic of your argument.

I'm not clear about the relationship between words in Latin and words in
Greek, even when they're spelled similarly or if they sound similar (and,
frankly, I couldn't tell). Having confessed my ignorance on that score,
allow me to question the flow of logic in your comments above. Somehow
you got from magister to magis to magos, all in Latin. From there you
leaped to "magikos" in Greek and concluded that "mastery is magic." My
Latin is very limited but it seems to me that your conclusion -- although
a nice play with words -- is a non sequitur (i.e., it does not follow from
the preceding argument). (My dictionaries tie "magister" to "magnus," not
"magis" and none make a connection to "magikos.")

Issue # 3 - my somewhat cryptic (or is it enigmatic?) response to
Sensaru's question.

When I first read Sensaru's question, I thought it a bit cryptic and was
inclined to pass it by. Then, for some unknown reason, I decided to
respond in kind. Allow me to "unpack" my response.

When I wrote, "Only a master knows," I was saying that only a master truly
knows what mastery means. It is one thing to observe someone's
performance and, from the perspective of observer, conclude that the
performance was turned in by a master or to adjudge the performer a
master, but that is a far cry from the perspective of the master in
question. I also had in mind that much of what a master knows and can do
consists of tacit knowledge, knowledge that the master possesses and can
apply but cannot articulate (per Michael Polanyi). I was further tempted
to add, "So, if you want to know the definition of mastery, ask a master."
But, I didn't. Why? Because, in addition to having to face up to the
fact that the master probably cannot articulate all of what constitutes
mastery and that perhaps that which the master cannot articulate contains
the really important knowledge, you'd also have to ask beforehand,
"Mastery of what?" I might well speak with a master cellist about playing
the cello but I'd be more inclined to speak with a master technician about
repairing a particular piece of equipment. Finally, whatever mastery
means, to you, me, a neophyte or a master, it is not the same from person
to person. No two master pianists play the same piece identically (and I
suspect that no one master pianist plays the same piece identically from
performance to performance -- but I'll leave comments such as those to Ray
Evans Harrell -- after all, he's the master on that score).

Now, back to Sensaru's question: "What is mastery?"

New answer: It is many things. Try these:

 1. Possession of masterly or consummate skill; proficiency
 2. The status of master or ruler; dominion; control
 3. Full command of some subject of study
 4. Ascendancy or victory in struggle or competition
 5. The act of mastering

The definitions above are from my dictionaries. Here are some thoughts of
my own:

"Mastery" is a state of being. That state of being can be attributed to
us by others and we can attribute it to others. The basis of attribution
might be directly observed behavior or performance over time or it might
be based on hearsay or on the reports of others. In any event, it is a
judgment people reach about other people and that they sometimes reach
about themselves. There was a time, for instance, when I would have
readily agreed with anyone who asserted that I was a master technician.
With the benefit of many more years of hindsight, I'm reluctant to agree
and I adamantly refuse to assert that I've ever been or ever will be a
master of anything. I used to say that I was a jack of all trades and
master of several. I suspect I'm merely a dabbler, a dilettante.

Were it up to me and I could be a master of whatever I choose, I would be
the master of my life and a master of living.

Actually, I'd settle for mastering language.


Fred Nickols
"Assistance at A Distance"


Fred Nickols <>

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