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11 Old-Fashioned Words for Idiots

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Idiots are everywhere. But how often can you use the word idiot without falling into the idiocy of word repetition? Sure, there are other common words such as moron, dolt and dumbass, but those terms are also easily worn out. Fortunately, there are many old, mostly forgotten terms ready for a revival. When idiots arise, please sprinkle these 11 words for lunkheads into your Facebook posts, think pieces, and doomsday prophecies.

1. JOBBERNOWL

This colorful word, which sounds distinctly Lewis Carroll-y, has two idiot-related uses: it can be a dum-dum or a dum-dum’s head. Its meaning is very close to numbskull, and it has a rarer variation meaning “general stupidity”: jobbernowlism.

2. NIDDY-NODDY

There’s something childishly awesome (or awesomely childish?) about words like jibber-jabber, higgledy-piggledy, and choo-choo. Here’s one for someone whose mental choo-choo train is stalled. As a bonus, it has a clear origin: In the 1600s, niddy-noddy referred to an involuntary dropping (nodding) of the head, kind of like when you fall asleep on an airplane, then jolt yourself awake. The association with drowsiness led the word to the lexicon of idiocy.

3. STOOKIE

A stookie was originally a type of wax statue or other dummy. That made for a smooth transition to real people who aren’t much brighter. You can see that statuesque influence in this 1948 use from The Aberdeen Press and Journal: The civic representatives all standing like ‘stookies’ as they had not got the words of the Psalm they were singing.” Stookies are dummies—literally and figuratively.

4. PUZZLEHEAD

This term isn’t totally out of use, and it does have a positive sense as a crossword or jigsaw puzzle enthusiast. But since the early 1800s, a puzzlehead has also been a person who is confused, as if his mind were a Jenga game that went on a little too long. That’s how brains work, right? Damn it, I’m a lexicographer, not a brainologist.

5. MERRY-ANDREW

The original meaning for this term was a clown—and it’s a slippery slope from buffoonery-that-entertains to buffoonery-that-annoys. This 1910 use from H.H. Richardson’s Getting of Wisdom means something close to dunce: “She grew cautious, and hesitated discreetly before returning one of those ingenuous answers, which, in the beginning, had made her the merry-andrew of the class.”

6. DIZZARD

A dizzard was originally a jester in the 1500s. Since jesters were also called fools, it’s no wonder the word migrated to Idiocy Land. The similarity to dizzy is no accident, as lightness of head is often linked to stupidity of brain.

7. DODDYPOLL

The origins of this term—which go back to at least the early 1400s—suggest it comes from a definition of dod: to make a head rounder. So a doddypoll has an excessively round head, the kind the owner might let roll away at any moment.

8. DUNDERWHELP

You’re probably familiar with dunderhead, which is one of many noggin-related words for idiots, such as meathead and stupidhead. But the dunderhead has a forgotten sibling: the dunderwhelp, who is presumably a chip off the old blockhead. A similar term is dunderpate, which turns up in an 1809 use from Washington Irving’s A Knickerbocker’s History of New York: “A dunderpate, like the owl, the stupidest of birds.” In your face, owls with graduation caps.

9. CLODPATE

Speaking of pate, that old word for the head opened a lot of doors when it comes to naming idiots. In addition to clodpate—a word for someone with a thick head—other insults include doddy-pate, jolter-pate, muddle-pate, puzzle-pate, rattle-pate, and shallow-pate. I love shallow-pate, which was used in a sexism-skewering sentence from 1930 in Time & Tide magazine: “To confound the shallow-pates who complained that a suffragist must be a dowd, the leader of the W.S.P.U. appeared on platforms clothed in Paris frocks.” I reckon we could easily bring pate back. Lord knows we’re surrounded by douchepates and jerkpates.

10. SUMPH

Dating from the 1700s, the origin of this mostly Scottish word is uncertain, but I can confirm that it has a unique, guttural sound that pairs well with idiocy. If I said my cousin is a sumph, you could probably guess he hasn’t authored many peer-reviewed journal articles.

11. NINNYHAMMER

I hate to play favorites and I never exaggerate, but this is the best word ever. It’s such a glorious mash-up: the namby-pambiness of a ninny and the power of a hammer don’t seem to go together, but they combine to make an insult that combines a ninny’s lack of conviction with a hammer’s lack of brainpower. This word dates from the late 1500s, and this 1622 poem by Samuel Rowlands voices a self-deprecating regret: “I might haue beene a scholler, learn'd my Grammar, But I haue lost all like a Ninnie-hammer.” Some heroic writers still use this term, like Colby Cosh in McLean’s who recently dismissed some economists like so: “Goggle-eyed ninnyhammers, the lot of ’em!”

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Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters
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According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

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Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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