All Fools’ Day (1 April) is upon us, but how many words do you know in your language for fool? I just asked myself the same question and started scribbling them down. I soon had over fifty words, and I noticed that some have quite unusual histories.
The word fool itself comes from the Latin for bellows or an inflated ball: so a fool is someone whose head is full of air. A modern slang equivalent would be airhead. In contrast we have lots of words which imply that the head of a fool is a solid lump: blockhead, thickhead, fathead. Then there’s clot, which also means a thick lump (as in a clot of blood), clod, which originally means a lump of earth, and chump, an old word for a piece of wood or meat. There are more references to the head and its contents (or lack of them) in bonehead, dunderhead (literally, a head full of thunder!), pinhead, numbskull, and – without wishing to offend our feathered friends birdbrain.
Many animals were used as insults in the past, but most of them seem to have died out (the insults, not the animals) in these more sensitive times, except for ass, jackass (a male ass) and the slightly old-fashioned goose, as in silly goose. There’s also the American kook, meaning a person with silly ideas. This may come from the word cuckoo, and when we think someone is soft in the head we might still say they’re cuckoo or bats or batty.
One of the most common words for a fool is idiot, this comes from the Greek idiotes which originally meant a private person, as opposed to someone who held public office. Initially the word had no derogatory meaning at all, but since only well-educated people were qualified to hold public office it came to mean someone who was unsuitable for such work, first because they lacked education and then because they supposedly lacked intelligence. This acquisition of derogatory meaning is quite common in the history of words, as we shall see.
The origin of the word dunce, meaning a stupid person who finds it difficult to learn, is quite unusual. The sixteenth century was a time of new thinking, both in society generally and in religion. But not everyone supported the ideas of the humanists and reformers. Some adhered to the doctrines of a thirteenth century Scottish theologian called John Duns Scotus, whose teachings had been influential throughout the Middle Ages. These people avere dubbed Dunsmen or Dunses by the reformers, who mocked their conservatism. So originally a dunce was someone who was resistant to new ideas, unwilling or unable to adapt, hence the modern meaning of a person who is slow to learn.
Many words focus on this slow-witted kind of stupidity: dolt, dope, duffer, dullard, dimwit, halfwit. There is often a reference to dim or dull in these words, just as bright and sharp are associated with intelligence and a quick wit. Wit originally meant mind, so a nitwit (sometimes shortened to nit) is someone with the mind of a louse, although some say this word comes from the dutch for I don’t know. And then there are my favourites: twit, twat, and twerp. There’s something about the initial tw- which makes these words sound both appropriate for the meaning and really insulting.
Unfortunately, even words which were originally intended not to be insulting eventually acquired a pejorative sense. There are several words which doctors and psychologists have tried to use objectively to denote levels of intelligence, but they always seem to degenerate into words of abuse. Words like imbecile, moron and cretin have precise scientific meanings, yet they have all become terms of abuse in everyday speech.
The Latin word for feeble has given us imbecile, which psychologists define as a person with an IQ of 25-50, capable only of guarding himself from danger and of performing simple mechanical tasks under supervision. Next up the IQ scale comes moron, a word derived from the Greek moros meaning foolish. It was invented in 1910 by an American psychologist, Dr Henry H. Goddard, to refer specifically to a mentally deficient person with a mental age of between eight and twelve and an IQ of 50-70.
The word cretin has an even more interesting history. Cretinism is a medical condition arising from a deficiency of the thyroid hormone, resulting in retarded growth and mental deficiency. The term créstin was originally applied to people with this thyroid condition in the Swiss Alps, and it meant Christian, the intention presumably being to draw attention to their humanity despite their deformity or perhaps as a reference to their gentleness. Now the dictionary declares that cretin, meaning an extreme stupid person, is taboo slang – and words can’t get much lower than that.
For simple minds
One of the least offensive words for a fool is a simpleton, someone who is simple-minded, an innocent. But the word innocent has been corrupted into the more derogatory ninny. Perhaps the slang nana is a further corruption of the same word. And if you call someone a nincompoop, the irritation and frustration you feel can easily be heard in this strangely expressive word.
Another word with a curious history is oaf. It comes from the same word as elf and originally meant a changeling, a child who was left by fairies (or elves) in place of the human child they had stolen. Abnormality in children was often blamed on these fairies, so oaf came to mean an abnormal child. It now refers to an idiot, especially a clumsy idiot.
Why certain personal names have become synonymous with stupidity is not always clear. Instead of I felt a fool, we might say, I felt a proper charlie, Charlie being an alternative form of Charles. It sounds a bit old fashioned now (and in Australia a charlie is a girl, which is rather confusing). The modern equivalent of a charlie is perhaps a wally, a word usually used as an insult; Wally is the nickname from Walter. One word of this kind which has a well-established etymology is silly-billy. This is a word which people use for fool when talking to children. Billy is the nickname for William, and the original silly Billy was King William IV in the early nineteenth century, who was regarded by many as not taking bis royal responsibilities seriously enough.
Silly is itself a very interesting word. It comes from the same root as the German selig, meaning holy. It also meant happy, humble, poor, plain, defenceless, weak and finally foolish, its only meaning today. (The adjective nice, on the other band, has taken a different route: deriving from the Latin nescius, it started off meaning ignorant and foolish, but now it just means – well, nice.)
But back to fools, or clowns, buffoons, goons, all people who act the fool. One word that hit the headlines last year was jerk which the dictionary defines as “a stupid or ignorant person regarded with contempt”. It was in the news a few months ago because it was used by a Member of Parliament to refer to another Member of Parliament. Incredibly, the Speaker of the House professed not to be familiar with the word, which must have made him feel a bit of a fool.