By Dr Oliver Tearle
The word encyclopedic means ‘of, pertaining to, or resembling an encyclopædia’ (more commonly spelt encyclopedia these days), although more broadly it also denotes something that encompasses all branches of learning or something that is full of information in a variety of subjects. So we might talk about a clever person having an encyclopedic knowledge or a particular book being encyclopedic in terms of the range of information it contains.
It stands to reason, of course, that an ‘encyclopedia’ would itself be encyclopedic. This is a kind of book containing information on a variety of subjects. The Encyclopedia Britannica is one leading example, published in Scotland since the eighteenth century.
Curiously, the word ‘encyclopaedia’ itself is something of a mistake: the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) informs us that it’s derived from the pseudo-Greek term ἐγκυκλοπαιδεία, which is an erroneous form found in the manuscripts of ancient writers including Quintilian, Pliny, and Galen, all of whom appear to have misread the Greek phrase ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία, meaning ‘encyclical education’ (i.e., the circle of arts and sciences considered by the Greeks as essential to a liberal education). So an encyclopedia is an ‘all-round’ education, if you like.
But what are some other useful ways of describing someone as encyclopedic? Below, we discuss some of the best synonyms (and antonyms) for this word.
If something is encyclopedic then it contains a great deal of information or knowledge. Indeed, it may contain all of the required knowledge on the relevant topic (or topics), and so it can also be described as COMPREHENSIVE, a word derived from Latin words meaning ‘to seize together’.
Of course, if you comprehend something, you grasp its meaning or significance: a different form of ‘seizing’. The same Latin word is also present in words like prehensile, denoting a limb (or, in some creatures, a tail) which is capable of grasping or seizing things. A comprehensive education at a comprehensive school is so named because it is supposed to provide education in all subjects, and so be encyclopedic.
UNIVERSAL and GENERAL both throw the emphasis on the comprehensive nature of a person’s knowledge, or a book’s information (etc.).
A related word is COMPLETE, which conveys the same idea of the knowledge being FULL.
Such fullness is also reflected in a trio of all- formations: ALL-ENCOMPASSING, ALL-INCLUSIVE, and ALL-EMBRACING can all be used to refer to knowledge or information which is encyclopedic in nature.
Other compound adjectives which are relevant here include WIDE-RANGING, BROAD-RANGING, and BROAD-BASED, all of which emphasise the breadth of knowledge, as opposed to a narrow focus on one particular field. So one might refer to the wide-ranging interests of that friend who seems to know something about any topic which comes up in conversation (or who everyone wants on their pub quiz team).
BROAD and VAST convey the same emphasis on a wide range of interests and expertise.
IN-DEPTH is a slightly different compound formation, in that it stresses depth rather than breadth; but it’s relevant here since it can still serve as a useful synonym for encyclopedic in some contexts.
For instance, someone might specialise in one area and so not, in the grand scheme of things, have an encyclopedic knowledge of every subject; but when it comes to that one area (medicine, say, or biology, or astrophysics), their knowledge might be described as in-depth – ‘encyclopedic’ in that they know a great deal about that topic. So a doctor who has an encyclopedic or in-depth knowledge of disease might be ignorant of poetry or sport or a dozen other things; but if their knowledge of their chosen field is in-depth it is ‘encyclopedic’ in a slightly different sense.
COMPENDIOUS is a useful word: it’s from the Latin meaning ‘to weigh together’ (from com- + pendĕre, ‘weigh’), and means encyclopedic but in a concise or succinct manner: so somebody who demonstrates encyclopedic knowledge of a subject in a brief speech that nevertheless touches upon all of the salient details might be described as having given a compendious speech or as having compendious knowledge of the topic at hand.
Meanwhile, the pair of words EXHAUSTIVE and EXTENSIVE can be used as synonyms for encyclopedic, as can a pair of thorough words, THOROUGH and THOROUGHGOING, as in a thoroughgoing account of the Second World War.
Finally, there’s a pair of useful phrases, which are slightly less formal than the synonyms mentioned above but can still be used as alternatives to encyclopedic when the topic is information, facts, or knowledge: ACROSS THE BOARD and WALL-TO-WALL.
What are the best antonyms for encyclopedic? Since this adjective refers to a complete or comprehensive knowledge of something, it stands to reason that words meaning the opposite of this should include their negative forms: INCOMPLETE and UNCOMPREHENSIVE.
And since encyclopedic knowledge is about breadth and range, the adjectives NARROW, LIMITED, and BRIEF can all serve as handy antonyms, as can SPECIALISED and SPECIALIST, which denote a narrow zone of expertise focused on one area rather than a variety of subjects.
So, for instance, a polymath who has read widely in science, literature, art, history, and a whole host of other subjects might be described as having an encyclopedic brain, whereas someone who knows the football grounds of every English football team but little of anything else has a very specialist knowledge of one chosen area.