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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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Dollar Words: The Logophile Game That Has Math Geeks Hooked, Too
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Besides anagrams and palindromes, if there’s one thing wordplay aficionados like to mess around with, it’s the numerical value of the letters of the alphabet. Assigning numbers to letters—A = 1, B =2, C = 3, and so on, all the way through to Z = 26—opens the alphabet up to all kinds of mathematical and numerical games and trivia.

So add the value of ARM (32) to the value of BEND (25) and you get the value of ELBOW (57). Likewise, WHITE (65) plus HOUSE (68) equals GOVERNMENT (133). HAIR (8, 1, 9, 18) is a palindrome in this A to Z number system, as is INSULINS (9, 14, 19, 21, 12, 9, 14, 19). Add up the neighboring letter pairs in CAN (3 + 1, 1 + 14), and you’ll get DO (4, 15). The letters in FOURTEEN DOZEN add up to 14 dozen (168).

One more game that can be played with the numerical values of the alphabet is to search for words that total a specific value—the holy grail of which is precisely 100. Words that total 100 in this A to Z way are affectionately known as “dollar words.” They’re actually not all that rare in English, and a full list of them includes some fairly familiar words:

ANNUALLY BOUNDARY CULTURE DRIZZLE

MITTENS MOODIEST NASTILY OUTSET

PAYPHONE PORTLAND PREVENT PRIMARY

PRINTER SESSION SOURCES STRESS

STYLES SWIMMER TATTOOED THIRTY

TOILETS TURKEY UNDRESS USELESS

WHENEVER WHISKING WHISTLES WEDNESDAY

But given a set total in mind, that raises a couple of questions: What are the shortest and the longest dollar words in the dictionary?

Because 100 is a relatively large total for a short word (and because a lot of the highest value letters at the tail end of the alphabet are hard to find homes for, like V, X, and Z) shorter dollar words are fairly hard to come by. As a result, only a handful of 5-letter dollar words have ever been discovered, including:

BUZZY NUTTY PUSSY

In fact, as proof of just how many seldom-used letters lie at the end of the alphabet, if you were to change the numbers around so that A = 26, B =25, and so on through to Z = 1, the number of five-letter dollar words increases enormously:

ABBEY ACRID BACON BASAL

BEFOG BEGET CATCH CHAIN

CHALK CHINA DODGE ELIDE

FACET HENCE IMAGE LAGAN

LANCE MAGMA MEDAL NAKED

But shortest of all are two 4-letter words: acca, an Australian slang word for an academic, and caca, a childish word for poop.

Oppositely, it can be just as difficult looking for as long a dollar word as possible; the more letters a word has, the higher its total grows. But the relatively high frequency of the letters in the first few places of the alphabet means that there are quite a few lengthy dollar words, including some with as many as 12 letters:

BACKTRACKING COMMANDEERED

DEBAUCHERIES DESEGREGATED

INAPPLICABLE NON-BREAKABLE

Apparently longest of all is the 13-letter word adiabatically, a term from meteorology and thermodynamics referring to any process that occurs without a loss or gain of heat.

But why stop at adding up? Multiplying the numerical values of words leads to some considerably larger numbers—and some considerably higher targets.

Multiply the letters of the word TYPEY together, for instance, and you’ll end up with 1,000,000 (= 20 × 25 × 16 × 5 × 25). TEETHY multiplies to 2,000,000 (= 20 × 5 × 5 × 20 × 8 × 25). And PEYOTE multiplies to 3,000,000 (= 16 × 5 × 25 × 15 × 20 × 5). No word has yet been found that totals precisely 4,000,000 or 5,000,000, but some—like LURING (4,000,752) and JUICING (5,000,940)—have come tantalizingly close.

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

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