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21 Words for 'Fool' And Their Oafish Origins

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English has a colorful vocabulary for, well, oafs, dolts, bumpkins, schnooks, and goofs, and their origins, whether confirmed or conjectured, are just as colorful. So, let’s partake of a bit of etymological tomfoolery with these 21 words for fools.

1. OAF

The word oaf, first recorded in the early 1600s, originally referred to a “stupid or ugly child left by elves in place of a child carried off by them,” as the Barnhart Dictionary of English Etymology explains. Deriving from a Scandinavian root related to English’s elf, oaf evolved from “changeling” to “stupid or clumsy person.”

2. DOLT

A dolt is a “dull person”—quite literally so. It’s first found in the form doltish in the 1540s and appears to be related to dull and dold (“stupid, inert”), an obsolete past participial form of the verb to dull that might also be responsible for doldrums.

3. SAP

A sap, or “gullible person,” may have been shortened in the early 1800s from sapskull, or someone whose head is like sapwood, the soft, sap-conducting wood between a tree’s bark and the hard, inner timber.

4. BOOB

In the early 1900s, it seems American English created the shorter boob from the much older booby (1600), which the great English lexicographer Samuel Johnson defined as a “dull, heavy, stupid fellow; a lubber.” While its ultimate origin is unclear, there are several theories. A leading one takes boob back to the Spanish bobo, “fool,” also used of seabirds, hence the blue-footed booby. Bobo, in turn, may come from the Latin balbus, meaning and imitating “stammering.”

5. LUBBER

Speaking of lubber, this old-fashioned insult for a “big, clumsy fellow” goes all the way back to the 14th century. It might be from an even older Scandinavian-based lobi, “lazy lout,” or the French lobeor, “swindler, parasite.” Lubbers first mocked idle monks, so-called abbey-lubbers, before ridiculing inept sailors as landlubbers.

6. BUFFOON

Send in the buffoons. In the late 16th century, a buffoon was a professional clown. The word ultimately comes from the Italian buffare, “to puff the cheeks,” a comic gesture, which became buffa (“a jest”) and then buffone (“jester”).

7. BOZO

One of the most famous clowns in American culture was Bozo the Clown. The name Bozo may owe its rise to early 20th-century vaudeville acts, as word researcher Peter Reitan argues, but as for the origin of bozo itself? The theories are many. One suggests bozo comes from the Spanish bozal, a pejorative term used for slaves who couldn’t speak Spanish well, hence “stupid” or “simple.”

8. BUMPKIN

This word for a “rustic rube” first insulted Dutchmen as short, stumpy people, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)—and apparently in their own language. The word might be from the Dutch boomken, “little tree,” or bommekijn, “little barrel,” which resemble stumps.

9. RUBE

Speaking of rubes, this bumpkin brethren comes from a shortened form of the given name Reuben. As the OED explains: “The transferred use denoting a yokel is probably due to the supposed widespread occurrence of biblical forenames in rustic communities.” The derogatory Reuben is found in print in 1855; rube, in 1891.

10. HICK

Similar to Reuben/rube is hick, another derogatory term for a “provincial country person” that comes from a pet form of the name Richard. While hick is primarily found in American English today, it’s found in the written record as early as 1565. A 1702 use in Irishman Richard Steele’s comedy The Funeral makes the meaning of hick quite clear: “Richard Bumpkin! Ha! a perfect Country Hick.”

11. YOKEL

The Simpsons’ Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel may have originally been a Reuben, which is to say he was a Richard, which is to say he was a … Jacob? The origin of yokel, first attested in the 1810s, is unclear, but one suggestion is that it’s borrowed from the German Jokel, a disparaging diminutive of Jakob, used as a stereotypical name for a farmer.

12. KOOK

Kook, a “crazy person,” is first found in American English slang in 1960, apparently shortened from kooky, first attested just a year before. Kooks are considered a bit cuckoo, which may well be the source of the word.

13. DOOFUS

Doofus also first emerges in the record in the 1960s. It could be a variant of goofus and playing with the doo in doo-doo or doodad. It might also be connected to doof, a Scottish term for a dullard probably borrowed from Scandinavian or Dutch words related to deaf.

14. GOOFUS

As for goofus, it’s first found in the 1910s as a humorous surname: The OED cites “Daniel Goofus” and “Joe Goofus” in 1916 and 1917, respectively. A goof is recorded around the same time. It may be altered from the Early Modern English goff, via French goffe (“awkward, stupid”) or Old English gegaf (“buffoonery”). Gaff and gaffe may have further influenced goofus/goof.

15. SCHLUB

Yiddish is a rich source of “fool” words in English, including schlub. Yiddish may have borrowed this term for an “oaf,” first recorded in American slang in the 1960s, from the Polish żłób, “blockhead.”

16. AND 17. SCHMO AND SCHMUCK

Schmo, or “jerk,” is probably a euphemistic form of schmuck, an “irritating person” that literally means “penis” in Yiddish. Schmuck may be from the Polish shmuk, a “grass snake.”

18. SCHNOOK

Yiddish might also give us schnook, which the great American journalist H. L. Mencken glossed as a “sucker” in 1948. Some suppose schnook comes from the Yiddish shnuk, “an elephant’s trunk,” although the connection between a long snout and a simpleton is unclear.

19. KLUTZ

Klutz is another Yiddish contribution to English’s lexicon of lambasting. This word for a clumsy person goes back to German roots for “block” or “lump” related to English’s clod and clot. Think blockhead.

20. NINCOMPOOP

While Samuel Johnson famously derived this fanciful term for a fool from the Latin non compos mentis (“not of sound mind”), its origin remains a mystery. Early records (late 17th century) suggest nincompoop could come from a surname. Philologist Ernest Weekly takes up this suggestion, supposing nincompoop could come from the French Nicodemus, a name used for “fool,” joined with a Dutch-derived poop, also used for “fool.”

21. NIMROD

The origin of nimrod is another great mystery of English’s tomfoolery. Biblically, Nimrod, the great grandson of Noah, was a mighty hunter. At World Wide Words, etymologist extraordinaire Michael Quinion finds nimrod was used neutrally for hunters in the US in the early 1900s. It then shifted to an insult for incompetent shooters in the 1930s, which may help explain why Bugs Bunny ribbed Elmer Fudd as a “poor little Nimrod.” By the 1980s, nimrod lost its hunting associations, and was used in student slang for a sad sack.

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9 Sweet Old Words for Bitter Tastes and Taunts
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Whether you’re enjoying the sharp taste of an IPA or disliking some nasty words from a colleague, it’s hard not to talk about bitterness. But we could all use a few new—or old—terms for this all-too-common concept. So let’s dig into the history of English to find a few words fit to describe barbs and rhubarbs.

1. STOMACHOUS

Have you ever spoken with bile and gall? If so, you’ll understand why stomachous is also a word describing bitterness, especially bitter words and feelings. This is an angry word to describe spiteful outbursts that come when you’ve had a bellyful of something. In The Faerie Queen, Edmond Spencer used the term, describing those who, “With sterne lookes, and stomachous disdaine, Gaue signes of grudge and discontentment vaine." You can also say someone is “stomachously angry,” a level of anger requiring a handful of antacids.

2. WORMWOOD

Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) is the patron plant of bitterness, which has made wormwood synonymous with the concept. Since at least the 1500s, that has included wormwood being used as an adjective. Shakespeare used the term in this way: “Thy secret pleasure turnes to open shame ... Thy sugred tongue to bitter wormwood tast.” George Parsons Lathrop reinforced this meaning in 1895 via the bitterness of regret, describing “the wormwood memories of wrongs in the past.” Unsurprisingly, some beers are brewed with wormwood to add bitterness, like Storm Wormwood IPA.

3. BRINISH

The earliest uses of brinish are waterlogged, referring to saltiness of the sea. The term then shifted to tears and then more general bitterness. Samuel Hieron used it in his 1620 book Works: “These brinish inuectiues are vnsauory” [sic]. Nothing can ruin your day quite like brinish invective.

4. CRABBED

Crabby is a popular word for moods that are, shall we say, not reminiscent of puppies and rainbows. Crabbed has likewise been used to describe people in ways that aren’t flattering to the crab community. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological note is amusing: “The primary reference was to the crooked or wayward gait of the crustacean, and the contradictory, perverse, and fractious disposition which this expressed.” This led to a variety of meanings running the gamut from perverse to combative to irritable—so bitter fits right in. Since the 1400s, crabbed has sometimes referred to tastes and other things that are closer to a triple IPA than a chocolate cookie. OED examples of “crabbed supper” and “crabbed entertainment” both sound displeasing to the stomach.

5. ABSINTHIAN

This word, found in English since the 1600s, is mainly a literary term suggesting wormwood in its early uses; later, it started applying to the green alcohol that is bitter and often illegal. A 1635 couplet from poet Thomas Randolph sounds like sound dietary advice: “Best Physique then, when gall with sugar meets, Tempring Absinthian bitternesse with sweets.” A later use, from 1882 by poet Egbert Martin, makes a more spiritual recommendation: “Prayer can empty life's absinthian gall, Rest and peace and quiet wait its call.”

6. RODENT

Now here’s a bizarre, and rare, twist on a common word. Though we’re most familiar with rodents as the nasty rats digging through your garbage and the adorable hamsters spinning in a wheel, this term has occasionally been an adjective. Though later uses apply to corrosiveness and literal rodents, the earliest known example refers to bitterness. A medical example from 1633, referring to the bodily humors, shows how this odd term was used: “They offend in quality, being too hot, or too cold, or too sharp, and rodent.”

7. NIPPIT

The first uses of nippit, found in the 1500s, refer to scarcity, which may be because this is a variation of nipped. In the 1800s, the term spread to miserliness and narrow-mindedness, and from there to more general bitterness. OED examples describe “nippit words” and people who are “mean or nippit.”

8. SNELL

This marvelous word first referred to physical and mental quickness. A “snell remark” showed a quick wit. But that keenness spread to a different sort of sharpness: the severity or crispness of bitter weather. An 1822 use from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine uses this sense: “The wintry air is snell and keen.”

9. TETRICAL

The Latinate term for bitterness and harshness of various sorts appears in José Francisco de Isla's 1772 book The History of the Famous Preacher Friar Gerund de Campazas, describing some non-sweet folks: "Some so tetrical, so cross-grained, and of so corrupt a taste." A similar meaning is shared by the also-rare terms tetric, tetricity, tetricious, and tetritude. Thankfully, there is no relation to the sweet game of Tetris.

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19 Old-Timey Ways to Call B.S.
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If you've been using the B.S. word a lot lately, it might be time to change things up. Look no further: We’ve partnered with the editors of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to bring you 19 old-timey ways to call B.S. from all over the United States.

1. FIDDLE ON A BROOMSTICK

Need to cry nonsense in Vermont? You could one-up fiddlesticks by saying, “Fiddle on a broomstick!” You could also say fiddle up a gum tree.

2. FAIRYDIDDLE

This Nebraska term is a variation of taradiddle, according to DARE, and might be influenced by “fairy tale.” Taradiddle meaning a lie or fib originated around 1796, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and by 1970 also meant pretentious or empty talk.

3. FAHDOODLE

Another variation on an older word. Fa’doodle is British English from about 1670, according to the OED, while fahdoodle was recorded in New York as of the 1870s. Also related is the 19th century flapdoodle.

4. MALOLLY

“That’s a load of malolly!” you could say when you think somebody is full of it. Used in Georgia and Indiana. Variations include malollypop and molly.

5. GURRY

Other meanings for this Maryland saying for rubbish or nonsense include “diarrhea” from 16th century British English and “fish offal” from 19th century U.S. whaling lingo, according to the OED.

6. BULL DURHAM

This New York City euphemism is also a brand of tobacco. Other bullish yet delicate ways of saying B.S. include bullfeathers in Arkansas and bullcorn in Texas.

7. BUSHWA

This rather old-fashioned Northern term originated around 1920, says the OED. DARE says this probable euphemism for B.S. may also be influenced by the Canadian-French bois de vache, “buffalo dung,” or bois de cheval, “horse dung.”

8. AND 9. DONKEY DUST AND HEIFER DUST

Dust is a polite way of saying “manure.” Hence, donkey and heifer dust are literally manure from a donkey and heifer, and figuratively ways of saying bullshit without saying it. Donkey dust is a Massachusetts native while heifer dust is from the Ozarks.

10. BOTTLEWASH

Instead of “Hogwash!” you can also say, “Bottlewash!” What exactly is hogwash? The OED says it first referred to kitchen scraps used to feed pigs, then to any low quality alcohol, and then to something nonsensical or ridiculous.

11. APPLESAUCE

Applesauce became more than sauce from apples in the 1920s, says DARE, and may also refer to insincere flattery and lies, according to the OED. The term is attributed to Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, a cartoonist, sports writer, and inventor of slan­­­g whose phrases appeared in newspapers "at home and (in translation) abroad."

12. BALOOEY

Balooey!” a Texan might say if they think you’ve said something untrue. This nonsense word is a blend of baloney and hooey. Baloney meaning humbug or nonsense is from about 1928, says the OED, while hooey is from 1924.

13. BOSH

Chiefly used in the South, South Midland, and Northeast, bosh first appeared in English in the 19th century. It comes from the Turkish word bosh, meaning empty or worthless, which entered English because of its use in a popular novel at the time, Ayesha, the Maid of Kars by British writer and diplomat James Justinian Morier.

14. CUSH

Faced with nonsense in Virginia? “That’s a lot of cush,” you could say. DARE says this idiom for nonsense or rubbish might be related to cush, meaning a southern dish made with cornmeal or cornbread that can be sweet or savory.

15. FUSH

Head up to New England and instead of cush, you’d say fush for “nonsense.” To be even more colorful, you could say, “Fush to Bungtown!”

16. FLABBERDEGAZ

If someone from the Northwest says you’re full of flabberdegaz, watch out: They’re saying you’re full of “vain imaginings in speech,” says DARE. The word is probably related to flabbergast, to confuse or confound, and perhaps flabberdegasky, a 19th-century nonce word.

17. FLUMMADIDDLE

Flummadiddle, in addition to nonsense and foolishness, refers to a New England concoction of “stale bread, pork fat, molasses, water, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves,” says DARE. It's a “kind of mush, baked in the oven."

18. FLAPDOODLE

Speaking of weird food, flapdoodle (also spelled flapdaddle) is “an imaginary food of fools,” says DARE, as well as a term for “nonsense.” From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: “He gets up ... and slobbers out a speech, all full of tears and flapdoodle.”

19. FLUBDUB

Flub-a-dub-dub, balderdash in a tub. This word for bombastic or inept language has been used in U.S. English since at least 1888, according to the OED.

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