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.

9 People Who Have Been Called America's Sweetheart

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The term “America’s Sweetheart” first appeared in the early 1900s, back when motion pictures were still a novelty. Over the years, it’s been applied to a vast number of celebrities—largely young, bubbly, wholesome-seeming ladies who women want to be and men want to introduce to their mothers. (The occasional man has been dubbed America's sweetheart, too, but the moniker has never quite defined famous men the way it has defined a certain genre of female celebrity.) Here are nine people who have been called "America's sweetheart" in the past.

1. THE ORIGINAL: MARY PICKFORD

Mary Pickford circa 1910
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Mary Pickford—perhaps the most iconic actress of the Silent Era and a founder of Hollywood institutions like the United Artists studio and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—was the first to hold the unofficial title of "America's Sweetheart," a nickname reportedly given to her by influential theater owner David Grauman. The title would later be used in ad copy for her films and by magazines writing about her work. In a 1918 feature in Photoplay magazine called "Women I Have Loved," actor Elliott Dexter, in enumerating all of the actresses who had served as his on-screen love interests, wrote that "Mary Pickford absolutely captivated me as she does everyone who goes near her. Her genius, her brilliancy, her charm, her beauty—oh, what's the use? All of that has only been said two or three thousand times more or less and all of it is true." Dexter played opposite Pickford in A Romance of the Redwoods, a 1917 silent Western. (To give you an idea of her comparative clout, she received top billing, while his name didn't appear on the film's poster at all.)

"In more than 200 films, including 52 full-length features, she was the brave little girl whose hair hung down in golden ringlets," The Washington Post described in her obituary in 1979. "She was scarcely 5 feet tall, but she never gave up when times got bad. She was funny and sad, tough and vulnerable, innocent and ingenious, and she always won out in the end."

Oddly enough, Pickford proved that you didn't need to be from the U.S. to become America’s sweetheart—she was Canadian.

2. SHIRLEY TEMPLE

Shirley Temple, circa 1934.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Several decades after Pickford pioneered the name, Shirley Temple took over as "America’s Sweetheart," so effectively embodying the title that many have mistakenly called her America's first sweetheart. The dimpled, ringlet-sporting Depression-era child actor was famous by the time she was 6, singing and tap-dancing her way through more than 40 films before she retired from the pictures at the ripe age of 22 and selling millions of dolls in her likeness to American children in the process. As an adult, she went on to become a U.S. delegate to the U.N. and ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia.

The title of America's sweetheart stuck with Temple throughout her life. When Fox released box sets of her complete works on DVD in the early 2000s, the studio called them the America's Sweetheart collection.

3. DEBBIE REYNOLDS

Debbie Reynolds circa 1955
Keystone, Getty Images

Debbie Reynolds became America's latest sweetheart in the 1950s, starting with her star turn in Singin’ in the Rain, which debuted in 1952 when she was 20 years old. She went on to appear in multiple movies a year throughout the 1950s and had several hit songs on the Billboard charts. "Her girl-next-door looks, bouncy personality and energy in a string of comedies and musicals quickly earned her the title of America's Sweetheart," The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana explained in 1988.

Unfortunately, Reynolds's position as America's sweetheart was often juxtaposed with the sex-symbol status of her close friend Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds's husband Eddie Fisher (himself an American sweetheart) divorced her to marry Taylor in 1959, a scandal that garnered tremendous media coverage at the time and still appears in headlines today. Reynolds died in late 2016, and nearly every obituary referenced her years as America's sweetheart.

4. MARY TYLER MOORE

Mary Tyler Moore, circa 1969
E Milsom, Getty Images

In the 1970s, Mary Tyler Moore took over the title of America's sweetheart—though there was often a caveat. "Just as surely as Mary Pickford was America's sweetheart, Mary Tyler Moore is the viewers' sweetheart," a UPI newswire story about The Mary Tyler Moore Show declared in 1972, not quite giving her the full title. Moore became a household name in the early 1960s while playing Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show and went on to star in her own eponymous show between 1970 and 1977. In 1977, the New York Daily News called her "America's TV sweetheart." But in other publications, there was no descriptor required. Both Esquire and Rolling Stone labeled her "America's sweetheart' in cover stories in 1977 and 1980, respectively.

And yet, America can't focus on one sweetheart for too long. Already, her title was already at risk of being passed off to someone else. In 1979, The Pittsburgh Press wrote that Donna Pescow of Saturday Night Fever, who was then starring in the ABC show Angie, "may replace Mary Tyler Moore as America's sweetheart." (That one didn't quite come to fruition.)

5. MARY LOU RETTON … AND NUMEROUS OTHER FEMALE OLYMPIANS OF THE 1980s

Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Olympics.
STAFF/AFP, GettyImages

Not all of America's sweethearts have been actresses. Walter Cronkite bestowed the honorary on gymnast Mary Lou Retton following her wins at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Olympic runner Mary Decker occasionally donned the label in the 1980s, too, as did tennis star Chris Evert and swimmer Janet Evans. Just about every successful female athlete of the 1980s was at one point deemed to be America's sweetheart. The trope continues today, too—more recent Olympic gymnasts like Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, and Aly Raisman have all been called America's sweethearts, too.

6. MEG RYAN

Meg Ryan circa 1993.
MYCHELE DANIAU, AFP/Getty Images

Meg Ryan became America’s sweetheart thanks to roles in a string of romantic comedies, starting with When Harry Met Sally… in 1989 and continuing throughout the 1990s. In one typical article of the time, a Detroit Free Press story in 1996 called Ryan "she of the giggle in the voice and the sparkle in the eye." Another, published by The Age in Australia, called her "cinema's intoxicating, decent-hearted sprite." But she fell out of Hollywood favor in the early 2000s after an affair with Russell Crowe brought about the end of her marriage to Dennis Quaid, a scandal that captivated the tabloids. If there's one rule to being America's sweetheart, it's that you have to keep your image scandal free—extramarital affairs are definitely not allowed.

Though she has been out of the spotlight for several years, Ryan recently discussed her time as America's sweetheart with Gwyneth Paltrow at a Goop conference, saying she never liked the title. "When you get labeled anything, like America's sweetheart—I didn't even know what that meant," she told Paltrow. "I remember thinking, 'Is that good?'" She went on to say, "It doesn't necessarily imply that you're smart or sexual or complicated or anything. It's a label. And what can a label do but guess at you?"

7. JULIA ROBERTS

Julia Roberts in ‘Runaway Bride,’ 1999
Getty Images

Julia Roberts got her start in Hollywood with films like Mystic Pizza (1988) and Steel Magnolias (1989) and became a true international star when Pretty Woman came out in 1990. In 1993, The Boston Globe called her "the closest thing there is to America's Sweetheart." Throughout the '90s, both she and fellow sweetheart Meg Ryan regularly made the top of lists like Harlequin's Top 10 Most Desirable Women and Men's Health's list of the top stars to "take home to Mom." And yet by the mid-1990s, some writers were already moving on to someone else. "Sandra Bullock emerged as the likely successor to the fading Julia Roberts as America's Sweetheart," the South Florida Sun-Sentinel announced in its end-of-year coverage for 1995. But she was soon back on top—after My Best Friend's Wedding came out in 1997, the Orlando Sentinel wrote that she "hardly seems ready to relinquish her title as America's Sweetheart." In 2003, National Enquirer released a biography of the star called Julia Roberts: America's Sweetheart.

8. SANDRA BULLOCK

Sandra Bullock talks on a cell phone while shopping for laundry detergent in 1999’s ’Forces of Nature.'
Getty Images

Anyone with a few hit romantic comedies under their belt is sure to become America's sweetheart, and Sandra Bullock was no exception. Bullock made her name starring as the plucky heroine in movies like While You Were Sleeping (1995), but when she tried to stretch her dramatic legs, she wasn't quite so beloved. "Sandra Bullock and Clint Eastwood are popular because of their personalities and looks, not necessarily because we want to see them perform," a Knight Ridder newspaper critic snarked in 1999. Bullock wasn't particularly invested in being America's sweetheart, however, and she certainly understood the rules of the game. "There's a different 'America's Sweetheart' every time they have to promote another romantic comedy," she told The Orange County Register in 2005.

9. JENNIFER ANISTON

A promotional image of Jennifer Aniston with her arms crossed, 1995
NBC Television/Getty Images

Even more fool-proof than romantic comedies, the quickest way to become America's sweetheart is to link up with another all-American celebrity. While Jennifer Aniston hit sweetheart status thanks to the massive popularity of her character on Friends—one Entertainment Weekly labeled as a Top 10 greatest pop-culture characters of the last 20 years in 2010—her romance with noted Hollywood heartthrob Brad Pitt definitely sealed the deal. When that ended in 2005, she got to keep the title, except she became "America's jilted sweetheart" (compared to the "superhumanly sensual" Angelina Jolie), as a writer from The Arizona Republic called her in 2005. (Another rule for these superfluous titles? Women must be pitted against each other, whether they like it or not.)

Even though Aniston no longer appears in our homes every Thursday night as she did during her run on Friends, she'll always be the country's sweetheart for many. "Look at Jennifer Aniston: she's America's sweetheart for a reason," fellow actress Allison Williams observed while talking about red carpet styles in Elle's 2014 Women in TV issue. "You know what she's going to look like when she shows up to something, and there's something so comfortable in that."

Maybe that's the key. If America's sweetheart is anything, it's comforting.

Which Language Did English Borrow These Words From?

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