Numskulls, Noodles, and Nincompoops

By Maeve Maddox

When I began to research words meaning “stupid person,” I expected to find ten or so common ones and be done with it.

Instead I’ve found dozens upon dozens of English words used to describe a person of perceived limited intelligence.

I plan to continue my research, but here are twelve for a start.

cretin – This term has a medical meaning, so its use as an insult is unfortunate. Medically speaking, a cretin is a person who suffered from thyroid deficiency in the fetal stage. Two symptoms of cretinism in children are dwarfed stature and mental retardation.

In the 18th century, the age of Pope and Dryden, every fashionable person aspired to be a “Wit,” someone who could show off learning and clever association of ideas with neat, quotable phrases and quips. (Kind of like speech writers hoping to turn out memorable sound bites.) The noun wit, in the sense of “knowedge, intelligence, quick-thinking,” spawned several words to denote a stupid person.

half-wit – Originally, just a wannabe Wit whose verse and jokes were pretty lame. The term quickly came to mean “someone lacking in his wits.”

nitwit – In German and in Yiddish, “nit” means “nothing.” I suppose a nitwit must be another level down from a half-wit. (First recorded use 1922.)

twit – This is British slang dating from the 1930s. I first heard it in the Sixties when I lived in England. Thanks to cross-Atlantic linguistic fertilization, Americans have adopted it. Twit may derive from an Old English verb meaning “to reproach,” or it may be a development of nitwit.

ninny – Innocence, sadly enough, is often equated with stupidity, It’s thought that ninny, meaning “stupid person,” derives from the word innocent. “Innocent” was once a common given name whose pet form was “Ninny.” There may be a connection with the Italian word ninno, meaning “baby” or “child.”

noodleNoodle meaning “simpleton” is probably unrelated to noodle meaning “pasta.” Noodle meaning “stupid person” was in use as early as 1753. The word noodle to denote the edible substance is first attested in English in 1779.

numskull – I’ve always spelled it “numbskull, “but the form without the b seems to be more common. It’s a combined form of numb (devoid of sensation) + skull. A skull (brain) that can’t feel anything cannot, presumably, do much thinking.

nincompoop – A little old fashioned, perhaps, but nincompoop rolls nicely off the tongue. Dr. Johnson (1709-1784) thought it came from the legal phrase non compos mentis, meaning “mentally incompetent.” Etymologists challenge Johnson because the earlier forms were spelled without the second n.

simpleton – This word, “simple” + “ton,” was made on the model of a surname, ex. Templeton, Washington. The word simple has gone through several meanings. When simpleton was coined, the word simple indicated “devoid of duplicity”–another example of a positive trait coming to be equated with stupidity. A shorter form, simp, is circus slang for a simpleton.

dunce – This word is usually applied to a stupid student. It derives from the name of John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308). Duns Scotus was a medieval scholar whose work was viewed as hopelessly old-fashioned and nit-picky by progressive 16th century thinkers. Philosophers who still valued the works of Duns Scotus and argued along his lines of thought were called “dunces” by their opponents. In time the word dunce came to apply to any student who didn’t learn his lessons.

gonzo – Journalist Hunter S. Thompson put this word into the American vocabulary by coining the expression “gonzo journalism.” Webster’s Unabridged notes “origin unknown,” but there is an Italian word gonzo that means “simpleton” or “blockhead.” Thompson was thinking of irresponsible journalism that mixes fact and fiction and is presented as truth. Possibly gonzo isn’t so much “a stupid person” as “a person who writes inaccurate and misleading news stories.”

dumbass – This pejorative combines dumb with ass. Dumb started out as a word meaning “mute, unable to speak.” As so often happens in an unkind universe, a physical handicap came to be equated with stupidity. From dumb comes dummy, another synomym for “stupid person.” Among the various meanings of ass is “donkey.” As early as ancient Greece, the animal was equated with clumsiness and stupidity.

Languages tend to have multiple words relating to concepts of particular interest or importance in a culture.

For example, people of the north use many words related to cold weather: snow, ice, slush, sleet, blizzard, flurry, avalanche, powder, etc.

People who raise horses have numerous words for various kinds: stallion, gelding, mare, filly, foal, bronco, hunter, Morgan, pony, etc.

Could this abundance of English words for “stupid person” be a cause for concern?

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11 Responses to “Numskulls, Noodles, and Nincompoops”

  • Joshua

    “Could this abundance of English words for “stupid person” be a cause for concern?”

    Surely we’ve all read 1984 by Orwell…

    If not for the abundance, it would be stupid, plus stupid and double plus stupid…

  • Blain Reinkensmeyer

    I absolutely love this blog and am now an avid daily reader. I was wondering there is there any way you guys can start adding pronunciation keys with the words?

    Some of these words Ive never heard of in my life and I have to keep looking them up to figure out how to even pronounce them correctly. Would be a big help for a lot of readers I imagine.

    Thanks for the fantastic daily education!

  • Maeve

    Blain,
    Thanks for the encouragement.

    I have to confess that I’m inconsistent in providing pronunciation keys (I included them in the post about words ending in -mb) because it IS somewhat tedious to put them in. Another reason is that I’m never quite sure whose phonetic notation to use. I’ll try to get a handle on this for future posts.

  • Lindsay

    Grin, I remember my dad using nincompoop when I was a kid.

    I like that the old-fashioned terms were less abrasive than what you hear today (dumbass is a good example, heh). Maybe we were more civilized back then. 😉

  • Marie

    Thanks for a fun post! A eye opener – for sure.

    Thanks for a great blog – much learning can be done here!

  • Dee

    What a great way to start the day – sipping latte and chuckling as I read this. I do tech support…

  • Blain Reinkensmeyer

    Sounds good, and I can definitely understand it being tedious. What about just the tough words then? As far as which phonetic notation I use dictionary.com as that is very simple and straightforward.

    Today’s post on Hermes is a true winner, didn’t have to look up on word! Thanks 🙂

  • Maeve

    Blain,
    Since so many of our readers are non-native speakers, I think I should include pronunciations as much as possible, even for what for native speakers are “simple” words.

    I’ve decided to go with the phonetic notation at Answers.com

    Thanks for giving me the nudge I needed.

  • cmdweb

    Love this post. The variety of descriptive words used across different countries for similar meaning never ceases to amaze me.
    In the UK, use of ‘buffoon’ is widespread, and ‘muppet’ has made its way into mainstream language with a similar meaning.
    Being Scottish, I have many more obscure and colloquial words to choose from, but my favourite these days is ‘divot’.

  • Liz Pickard

    I LOVE learning new ways to tease. This compilation of delightful words for persons of perceived limited intelligence will be a wonderful addition to my lexicon of banter.

  • ssmilin

    I like “twit” Everybody knows a twit. They mean well but are usually clueless, and get in their own way, more than mine or yours.
    Funny how twits now tweet instead of twitter.

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