• dunce •
dêns • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A stupid person, a dolt, numbskull, dunderhead, moron, idiot, ignoramus, bonehead, knucklehead, etc., etc., etc.
Notes: English speakers have been very creative in developing a vocabulary to refer to stupid people. Do we need so many? They all seem to be perfect synonyms, a rarity in language. Writers have tried several derivations: duncely "like a dunce", duncedom "dunces collectively", and duncehood "the status of a dunce". All are rarities but, if needed, they are available.
In Play: One of my favorite cartoons requires a memory that goes back to the days when children were punished by making them put on a dunce cap, a conical hat like the one illustrated here, and made to stand or sit in a corner of the room. A man returning home from work finds his one-year-old son standing in a corner wearing a dunce cap. His wife is explaining, "He said his first word today."
Word History: Today's Good Word is an eponym of John Duns Scotus, a famous theologian born about 1266 and who died in 1308. He was, along with William of Ockham and Thomas Acquinas, one of the most influential theological philosophers of the late Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries). Duns was the English town on the border with Scotland where Scotus was born. Those who supported Duns's theology called themselves 'Scotists', but those who rejected and ridiculed his new theology called them 'Dunsmen' or 'Dunses'. The word, by then spelled dunce, passed into the general vocabulary in the 16th century. (Today we thank Rob Towart, not a follower of Duns and far, far from duncehood, for recommending today's historically fascinating Good Word.)