Book of Words: The Math Tutor by Robert Laurence

This blog offers a different type of book review­—one that’s combined with vocabulary building. Included here, following a short review, are a few interesting words I found in The Math Tutor by Robert Laurence.

Laurence’s main character, Sam Butler, is a retired professor of law and a widower who finds his life turned upside down after agreeing to tutor a home-schooled neighbor. Ellie, the sheltered young girl, takes to Butler’s life of caring for off-the-track Thoroughbreds and his enjoyment of state university track events. But Butler is also asked to mentor a law professor struggling to be published in his field. Laurence does an excellent job pulling the reader into the character’s psyche without overdoing it. We feel Butler’s emotions as he confronts difficult people, becomes injured and dependent on those around him, gains respect for Ellie’s young curious mind, and as he loses a very rewarding part of his life. This isn’t my usual mystery/thriller read, but I loved the story and Laurence’s ability to keep your attention glued to the page.

Just a Few Words from The Math Tutor:

  • Punctilio: noun. (Italian & Spanish; Italian puntigliopoint of honor, scruple, frm Spanish Puntillo, from diminutive ofpuntopoint, from Latinpunctum) (1596) 1 : a minute detail of conduct in a ceremony or in observance of a code 2 : careful observance of forms (as in social conduct) The adjective, punctilious: marked by or concerned about precise accordance with the details of codes or conventions. Synonym: careful   The Math Tutor, Page 140: “’Not honesty alone, but the punctilio of an honor the most sensitive.’ But I’m not sure Gwen would agree that the not-honesty-alone part would apply to her. I don’t believe she thinks she has any higher obligation to tell the truth than the rest of us.”
  • Perspicacity: noun. The quality of having a ready insight into things; shrewdness. The adjective perspicacious is defined as “of acute mental vision or discernment: keen.” Synonym: shrewd.  The Math Tutor, Page 160: Rose raised his eyebrows to Lynda, who said. “I’d believe her. I’ve stopped being surprised by her perspicacity.”
  • Pedagogic: adjective.Of, relating to, or befitting a teacher or education.  The Math Tutor, Page 298: “I said that factoring was just like picking all of the oranges out of a basket full of apples, oranges and plums, which I thought was nearly brilliant pedagogic device, though she didn’t, probably because you didn’t say it.”
  • Dreadnought: noun.1 : a warm garment of thick cloth. 2 (Dreadnought, British battleship) : Battleship. 3 : one that is among the largest or most powerful of its kind. The Math Tutor, Page 233: “By the way. I looked up the origins of the word ‘dreadnaught.’ There was a British warship First World War vintage, of that name. H.M.S. Dreadnought, O-U-G-H-T. But Webster’s finds A-U-G-H-T an acceptable variation, though perhaps archaic. I thought you’d want to know.”
  • Entropy: noun.1 : a measure of the unavailable energy in a closed thermodynamic system that is also usually considered to be a measure of the system’s disorder and that is a property of the system’s state and is related to it in such a manner that a reversible change in heat in the system produces a change in the measure which varies directly with the heat change and inversely with the absolute temperature at which the change takes place; Broadly: the degree of disorder or uncertainty in a system. 2 a : the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity. b : a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder. Synonyms: chaos, disorganization, randomness  The Math Tutor, Page 216: Sam shrugged. “Things fall apart. The universe is winding down. Eventually that dike will fail and the water will head downhill. If you want to be precise, entrophy is on the increase.” 

“What was that word?” “Entropy.”

“Which is…?”

“A measure of the disorder around us. Which is increasing. Everything tends toward confusion and collapse. Every crystal vase on the Earth is destined by the Second Law eventually to break.”


Definitions are typically fromThe New Oxford American Dictionarythrough Kindleor Wikipedia.

“The word is only a representation of the meaning; even at its best, writing almost always falls short of full meaning. Given that, why in God’s name would you want to make things worse by choosing a word which is only cousin to the one you really wanted to use?”

Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

What interesting words have you taken note of lately?