Numskulls, Noodles, and Nincompoops
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.”
noodle – Noodle 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?
Browse all articles on the Vocabulary category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!