Ignorance, Ignominy, and Other ig- Words

By Maeve Maddox

In the words ignominy, ignoble, and words related to ignore, the prefix ig- means not.

Words Related to Lack of Knowledge
Ignorance and its related forms come from the Latin verb ignorare, “not to know.”

ignore
Initially the English verb ignore meant “to be ignorant of.” Like “J’ignore” in modern French, “I ignore” meant simply, “I don’t know.”

In modern English ignore means “to refuse to take notice (of).” Ex. “I always smile and say ‘Hello,’ but she ignores me.”

ignorance and ignorant
Both these words relate to the fact or condition of not knowing something. As everyone is born ignorant, no shame should attach to the mere fact of being ignorant. However, the words have acquired negative connotations and both are often used to insult, hurt, or condemn.

For example, when Emilia discovers Desdemona’s dead body, ignorant is one of the terms of abuse she hurls at Othello:

Emilia: Thou has not half that power to do me harm
As I have to be hurt. O gull! O dolt!
As ignorant as dirt! thou hast done a deed–
I care not for thy sword; I’ll make thee known,
Though I lost twenty lives. –Othello, ii, 192-195.

ignoramus
Ignoramus [IG-nuh-RAY-mus] was an earlier generation’s favorite word for an ignorant person. For example, “That ignoramus doesn’t know the difference between imply and infer.” In fact, ignoramus is plural in origin. It’s the second person plural of the Latin verb ignorare: ignoramus, “we do not know.” It was a legal term:

ignoramus: The endorsement formerly made by a Grand Jury upon a bill or indictment presented to them, when they considered the evidence for the prosecution insufficient to warrant the case going to a petty jury.

I think the word dummy has probably replaced ignoramus in modern usage.

Words Related to Lack of Reputation
The etymology of both ignominy and ignoble can be traced to the Latin word for name.

ignominy
Etymologically, ignominy [IG-nuh-MIN-ee] is the state of not having a name.

Roman culture, like many others, attached great importance to the sanctity of the family name. Name and reputation were synonymous. Although he puts the words in the mouth of that toad Iago, Shakespeare expresses the importance of reputation in this speech from Othello:

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands:
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed. –Othello, III, iii, 156-161

A disgraced name is a name lost. The meaning of ignominy, therefore, is “dishonor, disgrace, shame, infamy.”

The adjective is ignominious [IG-nuh-MIN-ee-us]

ignoble
Like ignominy, ignoble has connections with reputation–or lack of it.

The word noble goes back to Latin nōscere, “to know.” The best-known people were members of the ruling classes. Their families had the wealth to buy the horses, weapons, and armor that enabled them to make a name for themselves. Being “known” conferred status. The word for being known became a class marker. Noble began as a word that referred to a social and economic class, but gradually acquired additional meanings.

Initially, ignoble meant “not noble,” that is, not born to the noble social class. Because the privileged class saw itself as superior in every way, noble came to mean “characterized by moral superiority,” and ignoble came to mean “morally flawed”:

A rake is a composition of all the lowest, most ignoble, degrading, and shameful vices; they all conspire to disgrace his character, and to ruin his fortune. –Philip Dormer Stanhope 4th Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773)

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5 Responses to “Ignorance, Ignominy, and Other ig- Words”

  • D.A.W.

    “I think the word dummy has probably replaced ignoramus in modern usage.”
    Oh, “ignoramus” is still commonly used, especially by well-educated people in North America who have some degree of a decent vocabulary.
    I have the problem of misspelling is sometimes: “ignoramous”. Maybe other people do this on the Internet, too, so search for “ignoramous”.

    I have also found that there is a word (at least one) for a stupid person that begins with nearly every letter of the alphabet.
    There is also such a word for “nonsense” for nearly every letter of the alphabet.

    In contrast, the words and phrases for a smart person are much less numerous. I have found {genius, wise man, savant, sage, scholar, brain, walking computer} – and very few others. This is a factor that makes “genius” such an overworked word.
    Also, the word “scholar” is somewhat questionable here because we have such people as 1. A scholar who advocates for the existence of flying saucers and alien abductions.
    2. A scholar who advocates goverment conspiracies on the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.
    Of course, I believe that such people are not very smart at all.

    Many words for unintelligent people have to do with do with animals, by the way: {ape, birdbrain, chimpanzee, donkey, gorilla, jackass, loon (a kind of a duck), monkey, ox, yak}. Note that I am not advocating the use of these – though I use some of them myself – but rather I am just reporting on their existence.
    My mother used to say, “He/she acts like he has a brain the size of a bee-bee.” Yes, having a bee-bee brain is very low on the totem pole!
    D.A.W.

  • D.A.W.

    I have had some close friends from Malaysia, and one of these is on the engineering faculty of Purdue University. His name is Ragu.
    Ragu told me that the word orangutan comes from the Malaysian “orang utan”, which means “man of the woods”.

    There is also “orang bandar”, which means “man of the town” – in other words, a human being. The Malaysians have long recognized that orangutans and people are closely related.

    Isaac Asimov wrote an important novel in which one of the main characters is named “Bandar”. That made me wonder if Dr. Asimov was aware of the phrase “orang bandar”, and he used the “Bandar” as the name of the character on purpose.
    I think that the novel is FOUNDATION’S EDGE, or else it is one of the sequels of this book, the fourth one in the FOUNDATION SAGA.
    After it was first published, FOUNDATIONS EDGE was on the list of top ten best-sellers of THE NEW YORK TIMES for months. Of course, I bought it myself as soon as I could find it.
    Back in the 1980s, it was not a simple case of ordering it over the Internet. I needed to go to real bookstores!
    D.A.W.

  • ApK

    “As everyone is born ignorant, no shame should attach to the mere fact of being ignorant”

    There’s lots of things we are as infants that should be eliminated by the time we are adults. If a healthy adult has not worked to eliminate the need to be dressed by his parents, or correct his ignorance, feeling shame might be perfectly appropriate.

    Similarly, while “ignorance” carries it’s negative connotation even when it should not, it is a perfectly valid insult when it implies the ignorance SHOULD and COULD have been corrected through education by now, but because of either laziness or obliviousness, it was not.

  • venqax

    A scholar is simply someone who engages in scholarship; usually research regarding an academic subject. It doesn’t necessarily imply exceptional intelligence or knowledge outside the area of the scholar’s expertise. That said, there is no reason that someone studying “flying saucers” or alien abduction or govt conspiracies couldn’t be a scholar, and an intelligent one. That depends on HOW they going about their scholarship qualitatively not on what phenomena is being studied.

  • venqax

    Just as an aside: Ignominy is a word I decline to use simply because it sounds so bad. The pronunciation you give it the correct one– and it makes a speaker sound astoundingly stupid to say it. If it was ig-NOM-in-ee, you’d have a great word to use, especially given its meaning. But it’s not.

    When teaching classes on law I’d like to mention the “writ of ignoramus”. I don’t think the students really believed me, and I never met a lawyer who was familiar with the term. Of course, that says little.

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