Word: heuristic

Pronunciation: hyoo-RI-stik

Part of Speech: adjective


  1. enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves
  2. proceeding to a solution by trial and error or by rules that are only loosely defined

Source: Oxford Dictionaries

Here’s an interesting example of a word I first learned in its secondary definition before its primary meaning. When I started the data analysis for my thesis, I learned how to construct phylogenetic trees in a software program called PAUP*, which includes a step that searches for the best trees for a given dataset based on trial and error. Some time later, I noticed a featured iPad app in the iOS App Store designed to help readers learn Shakespeare for themselves. What do these two things have in common? They both have “heuristic” approaches!

Something described as “heuristic” allows someone to learn or discover a given subject for themselves. As a computing term, a “heuristic” procedure toward a solution is carried out by trial and error or loosely defined rules. The word arose in the early 19th century and derives from an irregular form of the Greek verb heurískō, meaning “I find”.

While not a particularly well-known word, “heuristic” could possibly be used as a poetic alternative for “hands-on”. Note that it can also function as a noun to refer to “a heuristic process or method”. I assume the word would most commonly refer to teaching approaches that allow students to learn on their own (as is the case of the “Heuristic Shakespeare” project), though people familiar with computing terms might also recognize it as a reference to trial-and-error programs (such as the “heuristic search” option in PAUP*). If you write about characters who prefer to learn things for themselves or even about computer programs that run on loosely defined rules, “heuristic” is a good word to add to your vocabulary list!

Bonus: in case you’re wondering what this Heuristic Shakespeare project is all about, here’s a short preview of it from Heuristic Media. Yes, Sir Ian McKellen is behind it! Enjoy!

What are your thoughts on this word? Any suggestions for future “Word of the Week” featured words?

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