June 4, 2013

Case File #013.06.04: DUNCE

When dunce came into use in the early 1500s, it was originally spelled Duns. The word was derived from the name of John Duns Scotus, a thirteenth-century Scottish philosopher and theologian who had once been revered in intellectual circles but whose writings and ideas were dismissed by Renaissance thinkers as fatuous sophistry. Thus, any scholar in the early sixteenth century who still upheld the works of Scotus was often derogatorily referred to as a Duns man (sometimes spelled Dunsman), though the label was quickly shortened to just Duns. Around 1575, the spelling changed to the now familiar (and uncapitalized) dunce, and by the beginning of the seventeenth century, the term had lost its association with Scotus and had come to simply mean “a dim-witted or stupid person.” The conical dunce cap, however, didn't start showing up on the heads of slow-learning grade-schoolers until the mid-nineteenth century.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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