Monday, February 9, 2009


conspectus (kun-SPEK-tus)
n. a general survey of a subject, especially a book which surveys a topic

[Derives from Latin con ("together") + spec ("to look at")]

In college, many of my classes, especially those I took my first two years, were called "survey courses." As opposed to an in depth study of a narrow aspect of a subject, we surveyed the broader topics in the subject area. I mention this because, despite that exposure to general studies and textbooks which themselves surveyed their fields, I don't recall ever before coming across the word conspectus. Yet it perfectly captures what most undergraduates encounter their Freshman and Sophomore years. One example of a conspectus I took as a Freshman was Sociology 1. I never again had a class in that department, but because my professor, Dr. Richard Applebaum, introduced me to ideas from the broad spectrum of sociology, I have a solid idea of how interesting the scholarship in that department can be.

My first encounter -- or first that I recall -- with conspectus came recently in The Economist:
This book, from one of France's shrewdest interpreters of the Muslim world, provides a highly readable end-of-term conspectus of the subsequent violent encounter between America and the jihadists.

A related word, and the only other I know of which ends in -spectus, is prospectus ("a document describing the major features of a proposed project in enough detail so that prospective investors may evaluate it.") Prospectus derives from the Latin pro ("forward") + spec ("to look"). Not only is prospectus -- in my experience -- more common than conspectus, but I had the personal experience, working in real estate development, of regularly putting together prospectuses for investors in my company's projects. Also, prospectus has a number of related words which themselves are even more common: to prospect ("to search for mineral deposits"); prospecting ("searching for minerals"); prospective ("likely or expected to happen"); prospector ("a person who searches for minerals"); and prospects ("expectations of success").

No comments: