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A fool’s cap of etymologies, or the praise of folly

It is Halloween season and I thought I might offer our readers some mildly entertaining topic, appropriate for the occasion, but ghosts, ghouls, and gourds have been explored with such fullness by other people that I decided to talk about fools, though 1 April is a long way off.

It is amazing how many synonyms for “fool” exist! Here is the shortest list of English non-compound nouns meaning “fool”: booby, dunce, dolt, ninny, and noddy ~ noddle. Compounds often end in –head, such as blockhead, lunkhead (from lumphead?), and dunderhead (from thunderhead?), but of course, we also remember numskull (a rather confusing spelling for numbskull). It is almost funny that fool, the main English word for “a stupid person,” is not native. Fool was borrowed from Old French and, like folly, ultimately goes back to Latin follis “an inflated ball.” Obviously, a windbag is not a paragon of wit.

Stupid is also a Romance word. In English texts, it surfaced in the fourteenth century and meant “pitiful.”  By way of compensation, silly is Germanic, but how sad its history is! German selig, a close cognate of silly, means “blessed.” In the fourth-century Gothic Bible, the adjective sels meant “happy.” Later, the English adjective developed into “simple, ignorant,” and “feeble-minded.” What a striking case of the deterioration of meaning! The Old English for “fool” was (ge)dwǣsmann. –mann is of course “man,” and dwǣs is related to the root found in the Romance word for “beast.” That root meant “to breathe”: from an etymological point of view, the ancient noun beast meant “a breathing creature.” But those distant origins were forgotten long ago, and, as a rule, language treats animals with beastly contempt.

A smart bird called noddy.
Via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Our intelligence is so much superior to that of dumb beasts, isn’t it? We have even invented artificial intelligence, the dreaded AI. Ass, for instance, has become another word for “idiot.” Stubborn asses (donkeys) have forever carried burdens for us, and this is their reward. A particularly flagrant case of animal abuse comes from Scandinavia. The main fish that has sustained northerners for centuries is the cod: Icelandic þorsk(u)r, Norwegian torsk. The name of this invaluable fish has come to mean “fool.” A rare but insufficient case of restitution is an exclusive club the Norske Torske Klubben in St. Paul, Minnesota, founded by clever and dedicated people. Alas, a very big cod is called auli in Icelandic. This word also means “idiot”! By way of comfort, let us look at how we treat one another. Ninny is mine Inny(= Innocent), as nanny is mine Annie. And nincompoop consists of the first part of Nicholas (or more probably, Nicodemus), with -n-, perhaps “borrowed” from ninny, and poop added for the ultimate insult.

Other than that, we (or some of us) are fine. Everybody else is dumb. Once upon a time, formidable giants lived everywhere. In myths, the Scandinavian gods fought them. Nowadays, smart boys and girls overpower them in folk tales, and giants have long since gained an unenviable reputation for stupidity.  Old English had the word fīfel “monster, giant.” Its Modern Icelandic cognate means only “fool.” Yet my favorite Icelandic word for “giant” is glóp(u)r, because it sounds almost exactly like the Russian adjective glup- “stupid.” Some researchers believe that the two words are connected (a Slavic borrowing from Germanic?). Others deny the connection. My exposition sounds like a tale told by an idiot (minus the fury), but no, this is etymology: in reconstruction, few things are certain.

In our languages, birds do not fare much better than four-legged creatures and giants. One, almost arbitrary, example is noddy, the name of a nice, innocuous bird. Did the image of constant nodding ruin the bird’s reputation? The verb nod, first recorded in Middle English, seems to have related forms in German, and there, much to our irritation, its traces are lost. But then noodle also means “fool”! The origin of this word, the distant relative of noodle, designating a food product, has never been discovered. Does the image of noodles (strips and rings) make this food look ridiculous? The Russian idiom (in translation) don’t hang noodles on my ears means “stop duping me with your nonsense.” I have no idea where it originated or whether it is native or borrowed. The Russian word for “noodles” (lapsha, stress on the second syllable) is old; at some time, it acquired the not unexpected sense “confusion.” English use your noodle “think about it” (once, much more offensive than today) seems to be rather close to the Russian phrase. Can they be connected? Or is the n-d group sound symbolic, suggesting actions of a fool?

Here is our wide-awake and intrepid youngster Jack the giant-killer.
Via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Even though there is no way to discover the answer, we’ll presently return to this matter. Here I’ll only note the playful element in dealing with words for stupidity. Among several Icelandic words for “fool” (as though we have not yet seen enough of them!), we find bjáni, gjáni, and kjáni. Each has its own uncertain etymology, but it would be a minor miracle if they did not interact in some way. What a chance to denigrate an opponent and call him teasingly bjáni-gjáni-kjáni “cowardly, cowardly custard”! Words for “fool” must often have originated in slang. That is why their origin is usually hard to trace. We note with surprise that, for example, the etymology of German Narr “fool” is debatable, almost unknown. Perhaps a borrowing, but this idea is shaky.

Now back to sound symbolism. English dolt seems to be in some way connected with dull. But is it? The great Romance scholar Hugo Schuchardt followed his predecessors and cited similar forms from Basque, Portuguese (doudo, now doido “crazy”) and German (Dudeltopf “simpleton, noodle”), along with Latin stultus “stupid” (think of English stultify and disregard the s-mobile before t) and the possibly related stolildus “stolid.” Though cautiously, he suggested that the group dl-d occurs in words for silliness and has an emotional value. He was probably right. Once again, I may cite Russian examples. Dylda (stress on the first syllable) means “a lanky youth”; the word is humorous. The verb doldonit’ (stress on the second syllable) means “to prattle.” No Russian etymological dictionary features it. It may well be that dolt, along with its earlier doublet dold, is a word like dylda and that only folk etymology connected it with dull. As noted above, though proof in this area does not exist, there is no harm in suggesting a rational idea.

A fool from Twelfth Night, the cleverest character of them all.
Via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Finally, English geek for desert. The present-day senses “a socially eccentric person” and “someone engrossed in a single subject” are recent. For a long time, only geek “a performer whose act consists of biting the head off a live chicken or a snake” was known. A geek was a freak, a fake, an attraction in a pit-show. The word’s source must have been German Geck “fool” (Scottish geck “to deride” comes from the same source). The origin of German Geck is murky and need not trouble us in this context. Perhaps the word was sound-imitative or sound-symbolic. Or perhaps geeks gawked too much.

Fools are all over the place, but let us not despair and remember that the smartest person in Shakespeare’ plays is the fool. Happy Halloween! Go trick-or-treating. Someone who always stays at home (Icelandic heimski) is a fool. And look up the origin of idiot! Out, out, into the world of fresh air!

Featured image by Robert Linder on Unsplash (public domain)

Recent Comments

  1. nikita

    Re “noodles on my ears”, Polish (Silesian version) has “nudle wieszać”, which means exactly the same.

  2. Maggie Catambay

    Our Shakespeare reading club really enjoyed the Fool in “Twelfth Night.” We liked the idea of the Fool displaying wit and wisdom!
    But then “Geek” seems to be getting better (amelioration?) with Best Buy’s Geeks, and “Nerds” are getting more respect with their IT expertise.

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