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This context comes from the book "Black Rednecks And White Liberals" by Tomas Sowell

I'd like to say in advance that I'm not intending to offend anyone, but the context I'm about to provide contains an offensive word and descriptions of Afro-Americans that will seem offensive and racist but I can assure you that the book is anything but, and anyone who read it would probably agree.

Complaints about the improvidence of whites in the South, and of their ancestors in Britain before that, were echoed in W. E. B. Du Bois picture of his fellow blacks in the 1890s:

"Probably few poor nations waste more money by thoughtless and unreasonable expenditure than the American Negro, and especially those living in large cities. Thousands of dollars are annually wasted in amusements of various kinds, and in miscellaneous ornaments and gewgaws. The Negro has much to learn of the Jew and the Italian, as to living within his means and saving every penny from excessive and wasteful expenditures."

  • Can "of" be replaced with "from" in this context?

  • Is "I need to learn from him" the same as "I need to learn of him"?

  • Can anyone provide a definition for "of" meaning "from"?

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    In this archaic context you're correct, but the modern (still pretty old-fashioned) meaning of "learn of" is "learn about", and few speakers would understand it as anything else. Jun 29 at 22:00

2 Answers 2

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It's an old-fashioned usage.

The OED says, as of, sense 9.b.:

b. With ask, beg, demand, desire, expect, inquire, request, require, want, etc.; also hear, learn, understand .Some of these, as ask, inquire, were formerly constructed with at.

In some cases of is now used interchangeably with from.

It doesn't say explicitly that this use is archaic (unlike with borrow, buy, gain, get, have, receive, steal, take, win, etc, in sense 9.a), but my judgment is that it is so.

In the NOW ("News on the Web") corpus, there are 39469 instances of "learn from [personal pronoun]" against 406 of "learn of [personal pronoun]".

In COHA (Corpus of Historical American English), "learn from [personal pronoun]" records between 15 and 30 instances per decade up to the 1950s, but rose to at least 39 per decade since then, and 72 instances in the 2010s; whereas "learn of [personal pronoun]" peaks at 15 instances in the 1880s, but since 1910 has never had more than 7 instances per decade.

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    Those numbers are probably skewed by that fact that "She learned of his treachery" (meaning "to learn that something has happened, or exists) is still perfectly modern English. I agree that this usage of "learn of" is archaic. Jun 30 at 6:48
  • Actually, they are much more skewed by learn of it/them than by learn of his. If I remove learn of it, the NOW count of "learn of [personal pronoun]" is down to 182. In the COHA corpus, removing "learn of it" makes no difference at all up to the 1880s, when it reduces the peak to 11, but since 1910 instances without learn of it have been no more than 4 per decade. There isn't a single instance of learn of his in COHA.
    – Colin Fine
    Jun 30 at 10:42
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    If I didn't see the earlier context of the paragraph, I might have interpreted "learn of the Jew" to mean "learn about the Jew".
    – Barmar
    Jun 30 at 14:04
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"I had much to learn of Barack Obama" vs "I had much to learn from Barack Obama".

Without context, the first sentence has a clear meaning: I did not know much about Barack Obama and I had much to learn about him, perhaps in a library. The second sentence is more ambiguous. It could mean the same thing as the first sentence but it could also mean that I'm a personal friend of Barack Obama and he's personally teaching me something.

So to answer your question I would say that in the context of Sowell's book, you could swap "of" with "from" and have the same sentence with the same meaning, but I would also say that the use of "of" makes the sentence less ambiguous: Sowell isn't saying to seek out Jewish and Italian teachers; he's saying to seek out knowledge about Jewish and Italian history, particularly their history as poor immigrants to America. We want to learn "of" them.

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