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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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25 Smart Synonyms You Should Be Using
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The word thesaurus literally means "repository" or "storehouse," and it ultimately comes from the same root as the word treasure. There's certainly some treasure to be unearthed in one, so in honor of Thesaurus Day, here are 25 smart-sounding synonyms to reboot your vocabulary.

1. INSTEAD OF "PAUNCHY," TRY USING "ABDOMINOUS."

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Derived from the same root as abdomen, if you're abdominous then you have a paunchy stomach, or a large, protruding belly.

2. INSTEAD OF "BAD LANGUAGE," TRY USING "BILLINGSGATE."

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Billingsgate was a famous fish market in central London. Thanks to the foul language of the people who worked there, the name eventually became synonymous with all coarse or abusive language.

3. INSTEAD OF "BAD IDEA," TRY USING "CACOETHES."

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Derived from the Greek "bad character," a cacoethes (that's "ka-ko-EE-theez”) is an insatiable desire to do something inadvisable.

4. INSTEAD OF "SKILLFUL," TRY USING "DAEDAL."

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Daedalus was the architect who built the Labyrinth in the ancient myth of the Minotaur, and, derived from his name, someone who is daedal is especially skilled or artful.

5. INSTEAD OF "CONFUSE," TRY USING "EMBRANGLE."

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A brangle is a squabble or a noisy argument, while to embrangle someone is to throw them into a quandary or to utterly perplex them. An embranglement, likewise, is a tricky, confusing situation.

6. INSTEAD OF "FEVERISH," TRY USING "FEBRILE."

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If you've come down with the flu you might be feeling febrile, or feverish. It might only be a febricula (that's a light or passing fever), but nevertheless, you might need a febrifuge (a drug that lowers your temperature).

7. INSTEAD OF "SLIPPERY," TRY USING "GLIDDERY."

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If something glidders, it freezes over, which makes something gliddery very slippery, as if covered in ice.

8. INSTEAD OF "GOOSE BUMPS," TRY USING "HORRIPILATION."

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That's the medical name for this curious phenomenon, which is also called gooseflesh, henflesh, or goose-pimpling.

9. INSTEAD OF "APPROPRIATE," TRY USING "IDONEOUS."

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It's a little on the old-fashioned side, but idoneous, derived from the Latin word idoneus, makes a perfectly, well, appropriate replacement for words like proper, fit, and suitable.

10. INSTEAD OF "BOASTING," TRY USING "JACTANCE."

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Derived from a Latin word meaning "to boast" or "speak out," jactance or jactancy is vainglorious boasting.

11. INSTEAD OF "RECOGNIZABLE," TRY USING "KENSPECKLE."

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A word from Scots dialect but with its roots in Scandinavia, kenspeck or kenspeckle means "easily recognizable" or "conspicuous."

12. INSTEAD OF "INDIFFERENT," TRY USING "LAODICEAN."

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Laodicea was a city in ancient Asia Minor. According to the biblical Book of Revelation, the people of Laodicea were known for their religious apathy, their fair-weather faith, and their lukewarm interest in the church—all of which prompted a pretty stern letter from St. John. As a result, a Laodicean is an apathetic, indifferent, or unconcerned person when it comes to religion.

13. INSTEAD OF "SMELLY," TRY USING "MEPHITIC."

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A mephitis is a noxious, foul-smelling fume emanating from inside the earth, and anything that smells as bad as that is mephitic. Case in point, skunks were known as "mephitic weasels" is the 19th century.

14. INSTEAD OF "MISER," TRY USING "NIPCHEESE."

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As well as being another name for a ship's purser (the steward in charge of the ship's accounts), a nipcheese is a mean, penny-pinching person. Feel free to also call your most miserly friend a nip-farthing, a shut-purse, a pinch-plum, or a sharp-nose.

15. INSTEAD OF "BEND," TRY USING "OBLIQUATE."

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Derived from the same root as the word oblique, if something obliquates then it turns or bends to one side.

16. INSTEAD OF "CONCISE," TRY USING "PAUCILOQUENT."

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Ironically, the thesaurus is full of weird and wonderful words for people who don't say very much. As well as pauciloquent, people who like to keep things brief can be laconic, synoptic, or breviloquent.

17. INSTEAD OF "QUINTESSENCE," TRY USING "QUIDDITY."

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Quintessence is already a fairly smart-sounding word, but you can up the stakes with quiddity: Derived from a Latin word meaning "who," the quiddity of something is the very essence or nature of something, or a distinctive feature or characteristic.

18. INSTEAD OF "CHEERFUL," TRY USING "RIANT."

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Derived via French from the Latin word for "laugh," if you're riant then you're cheerful or mirthful. A riant landscape or image, likewise, is one that makes you happy or is pleasurable to look at.

19. INSTEAD OF "TWITCHY," TRY USING "SACCADIC."

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A saccade is an involuntary twitch or movement of the eye—and, figuratively, that makes someone who is saccadic characteristically fidgety, twitchy, or restless.

20. INSTEAD OF "EQUIVOCATE," TRY USING "TERGIVERSATE."

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To tergiversate literally means "to turn your back on" something, but more loosely, it means to dodge a question or issue, or to avoid a straightforward explanation.

21. INSTEAD OF "HOWL," TRY USING "ULULATE."

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Probably originally meant to be onomatopoeic, ululation is a howling sound like that made by wolves. More figuratively, to ululate can be used to mean "to bewail" or "lament."

22. INSTEAD OF "PREDICT," TRY USING "VATICINATE."

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Derived from the Latin word for a soothsayer or seer, to vaticinate is to prophesize or predict something.

23. INSTEAD OF "UNLUCKY," TRY USING "WANCHANCY."

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Wanchance is an old Scots dialect word for misfortune. Derived from that, the adjective wanchancy has fallen into more widespread use to mean "unlucky," "ill-fated," or in some contexts, "uncanny" or "eerily coincidental."

24. INSTEAD OF "LAST NIGHT," TRY USING "YESTERNIGHT."

There are more yester– words in the dictionary than just yesterday. As well as yesternight, there's yesterweek, yestereve, and yestermorn.

25. INSTEAD OF "CRITICISM," TRY USING "ZOILISM."

Zoilus was one of the harshest critics of the ancient Greek writer Homer, and he was known for his scathing, nit-picking attacks on Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Derived from him, a zoilist is an overbearingly harsh critic, while unduly harsh criticism is zoilism.

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10 Fascinating Facts About The Thesaurus

Writers often turn to a thesaurus to diversify their vocabulary and add nuance to their prose. But looking up synonyms and antonyms in a thesaurus can help anyone—writer or not—find the most vivid, incisive words to communicate thoughts and ideas. Since January 18 is Thesaurus Day, we’re celebrating with these 10 fascinating facts about your thesaurus.

1. ITS NAME COMES FROM THE GREEK WORD FOR TREASURE.

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Most logophiles consider the thesaurus to be a treasure trove of diction, but the word thesaurus really does mean treasure! It derives from the Greek word thésauros, which means a storehouse of precious items, or a treasure.

2. YOU CAN CALL THEM THESAURUSES OR THESAURI.

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How do you refer to more than one octopus? People say everything from octopuses, octopi, and octopodes. Similarly, many people have trouble figuring out the correct plural form of the word thesaurus. Though thesauri is technically correct—it attaches a Latin suffix to the Latin word thēsaurus—both thesauri and thesauruses are commonly used and accepted today.

3. EARLY THESAURUSES WERE REALLY DICTIONARIES.

Close-up of the term 'ideal' in a thesaurus.
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Ask a French scholar in the 16th century to see his thesaurus, and he'd gladly give you a copy of his dictionary. In the early 1530s, a French printer named Robert Estienne published Thesaurus Linguae Latinae, a comprehensive Latin dictionary listing words that appeared in Latin texts throughout an enormous span of history. And in 1572, Estienne's son Henri published Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a dictionary of Greek words. Although the Estiennes' books were called thesauruses, they were really dictionaries comprised of alphabetical listings of words with their definitions.

4. A GREEK HISTORIAN WROTE THE FIRST BOOK OF SYNONYMS.

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Philo of Byblos, a Greek historian and grammarian, wrote On Synonyms, a dictionary of synonyms that scholars consider to be the first ancient thesaurus. Dating to the late 1st century or early 2nd century CE, the book lists Greek words that are similar in meaning to each another. Sadly, we don’t know much more about On Synonyms because copies of the work haven’t survived over the centuries.

5. AN EARLY SANSKRIT THESAURUS WAS IN THE FORM OF A POEM.

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In the 4th century CE, an Indian poet and grammarian named Amara Sinha wrote The Amarakosha, a thesaurus of Sanskrit words. Rather than compile a boring list of similar words, Amara Sinha turned his thesaurus into a long poem. Divided into three sections—words relating to the divine, the earth, and everyday life—The Amarakosha contains verses so readers could memorize words easily. This thesaurus is the oldest book of its kind that still exists.

6. A BRITISH DOCTOR WROTE THE FIRST MODERN THESAURUS.

Portrait of Peter Mark Roget.
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Peter Mark Roget is the British doctor credited with authoring the first modern thesaurus. In 1805, he began compiling a list of words, arranged by their meaning and grouped according to theme. After retiring from his work as a physician in 1852, Roget published his Thesaurus of English words and phrases; so classified and arranged as to facilitate the expression of ideas and assist in literary composition. Today, Roget’s Thesaurus is still commercially successful and widely used. In fact, we celebrate Thesaurus Day on January 18 because Roget was born on this day in 1779.

7. THE THESAURUS HAS A SURPRISING LINK TO A MATHEMATICAL TOOL.

Image of a vintage log log slide rule.
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The division between "words people" and "numbers people" is deep-seated. Many mathematicians may try to steer clear of thesauruses, and bibliophiles may avoid calculators, but the thesaurus is actually linked to a mathematical tool. Around 1815, Roget invented the log log slide rule, a ruler-like device that allows users to easily calculate the roots and exponents of numbers. So while the inventor of the thesaurus was compiling words for his tome, he was also hard at work on the log log slide rule. A true jack-of-all-trades.

8. THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY HAS ITS OWN HISTORICAL THESAURUS.

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In 1965, a professor of English Language at Glasgow University suggested that scholars should create a historical thesaurus based on entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. The project was a massive undertaking, as people from multiple countries worked for 44 years to compile and classify words. Published in 2009, the Historical Thesaurus to the Oxford English Dictionary contains 800,000 words organized by theme and date. The thesaurus covers words and synonyms from Old English to the present day and lets readers discover when certain words were coined and how long they were commonly used.

9. ONE ARTIST TURNED HIS LOVE OF WORDS INTO A SERIES OF THESAURUS PAINTINGS.

Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004.
Mel Bochner, "Crazy," 2004. Francesca Castelli, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 2014, the Jewish Museum in New York showed a survey of conceptual artist Mel Bochner’s art. Bochner had incorporated words and synonyms in his paintings for years—which were collectively referred to as the thesaurus paintings—featuring word paintings and lists of synonyms on canvas. The brightly colored paintings feature different groups of English and Yiddish synonyms. According to Bochner, Vietnam and Iraq war veterans cried after seeing his thesaurus painting Die, which features words and phrases such as expire, perish, succumb, drop dead, croak, go belly up, pull the plug, and kick the bucket.

10. THERE'S AN URBAN THESAURUS FOR ALL YOUR SLANG SYNONYM NEEDS.

Copy of an Urban Dictionary book.
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Urban Dictionary helps people decipher the latest slang terms, but where should you go when you need a thesaurus of slang? Urban Thesaurus, of course! The site, which is not affiliated with Urban Dictionary, indexes millions of slang terms culled from slang dictionaries, then calculates usage correlations between the terms. Typing in the word money, for example, gives you an eclectic list of synonyms including scrilla, cheddar, mulah, coin, and bling.

This story originally ran in 2017.

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