The Origin of the Word Dunce
The word dunce derives from the name of an extremely accomplished religious scholar- John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), an influential philosopher and theologian of the High Middle Ages. If you guessed that his ideas and those who touted them were (somewhat unfairly) eventually widely panned as moronic, you’d be correct.
Born near the Scottish village of Duns, from which he took the name, Duns Scotus was ordained into the Catholic Franciscan Order at St. Andrew’s Priory, Northampton, England in 1291. Over the next 17 years, Duns Scotus strongly influenced both religious and secular thought.
One of Duns Scotus’ most notable contributions was the idea that existence was abstract, but it remained the same for all beings and things, only differing in terms of degree. However, he was perhaps most well known for making complex arguments, and in particular to prove the existence of God and the Immaculate Conception. For instance, his long and detailed argument for the existence of God can more or less be summed up as follows:
1) Something, A, is produced.
2) It is produced either by itself, nothing, or another.
3) Not by nothing, for nothing causes nothing.
4) Not by itself, for an effect never causes itself.
5) Therefore, by another; call it B.
6) We return to 2). B is produced either by itself, nothing, or another. The ascending series will either continue infinitely or we finally reach something which has nothing prior to it.
7) An infinite ascending series is impossible.
8) Therefore, a simple first efficient cause exists.
Given his detailed and genuinely well respected analyses in his time, Duns Scotus earned the nickname “the Subtle Doctor,” and an entire school of philosophy, Scotism, was named for him.
Important to the discussion at hand, Duns Scotus was a fiercely devout Catholic who even advocated for the forcible baptism into the One True Church of Jewish children and adults. Along with his extremely intellectual form of reasoning, this strict adherence to Church doctrine and teachings are ultimately what led to him becoming the namesake for dunce, despite the man himself being anything but.
Skip forward approximately 200 years after his death, and in the interim his ideas were still being widely taught and his work still well respected… that is, until the Protestant Reformation had reached England. Even before Henry VIII began the switch from Catholicism to Anglicism, the Reformation was tearing through northern Europe and its ideas, as well as the new thinking that came with the Renaissance, had begun to seep into the island nation.
Nonetheless, traditional Catholics fought back hard, and often relied on Duns Scotus’ theories and way of reasoning in their defense of the Church and its doctrines. However, many of the modern scholars of the late Renaissance saw Duns Scotus’ arguments as “hair splitting” and characterized his philosophy with the pejorative “sophistry.”
Pro-Protestant forces, seizing on this interpretation of Duns’ philosophy began to characterize their opponents who followed him as dupes too stupid to see behind Duns’ specious, deceptive arguments and slavish devotion to Catholic doctrine; and, naming them for their hero, they became known as Duns, such as in Tyndale’s Parable Wicked Mammon (1527): “A Duns man would make xx. distinctions.”
Over the years, Duns changed to duns and began to be applied to those beyond the spell of Duns Scotus, with one of two meanings. The first- one whose study of books has left him dull or stupid- was first seen in J. Lyly’s Euphues, (1578): “If one bee harde in conceiuing, they pronounce him a dowlte, if giuen to study, they proclayme him a duns.”
The second meaning- a dull-witted, stupid person with no capacity for learning- was first seen in F. Thynne’s Ann. Scotl. (1587): “But now in our age it is growne to be a common prouerbe in derision, to call such a person as is senselesse or without learning a duns, which is as much as a foole.”
The present spelling of Dunce was seen as early as 1535, when R. Layton, in a letter, used the word to describe Duns Scotus’s works; it was first applied more generally to denote a stupid person in 1611, in R. Cotgrave’s Dictionary of French & English Tongues: “Lourdaut, a sot, dunce, dullard. Viedaze, . . . an old dunce, doult, blockhead.”
Not all has been lost concerning Duns’ reputation, however, and he is today generally considered one of the more important philosophers of the Middle Ages. Pope John Paul II even beatified Duns in 1993.
As for who came up with the idea of putting a silly pointed hat on the heads of a person labeled as a dunce, this isn’t clear. It has been suggested that Duns held that the wearing of conical hats aided in learning, with the shape being a symbol of learning, funneling the knowledge into the head of the wearer. (This is not unlike Abracadabra cones that have been used in healing since at least the 2nd century.) Hence this idea supposedly championed by Duns ultimately saw those mocking the dunces forcing them to wear such a hat.
However, there appears to be no direct evidence to support such a notion and the first known reference to a dunce cap didn’t come about until the 1840 work by Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, in which it states
Displayed on hooks upon the wall in all their terrors, were the cane and ruler; and near them, on a small shelf of its own, the dunce’s cap, made of old newspapers and decorated with glaring wafers of the largest size.
The word “dunce” at this point had long been applied as a derogatory term for people labeled as stupid or having done or said something moronic, with no connection to Duns or his work at all. Given the context it was first mentioned, and later continued to be used for (punishment for students), the idea behind it may well have had nothing to do with hats from Duns’ time, whether he actually wore them or not- simply a way to visually let everyone know said individual had done something stupid or acted out via making them wear a silly hat that was easy and cheap to make- just a simple means of humiliation. In fact, long before the idea of a dunce cap seems to have popped up, there was the “dunce table”, referenced in the 1624 play by John Ford, The Sun’s Darling, in which poor performing students were forced to sit.
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- Francis Bacon, in his History of Life and Death (1623), reported that Duns Scotus was not actually dead when he was entombed in 1308. According to Bacon, Scotus was suffering from an undiagnosed coma when he was placed in the tomb, and at some point woke up, as shown by the “wounded and bruised state of the head, by reason of the body striving and tossing in the coffin,” which was learned when the body was later disinterred. However, modern scholars don’t think there is anything to this idea, however.
- Blessed John Duns Scotus
- The Old Curiosity Shop
- Duns Scotus
- Duns Scotus
- History of Life and Death
- John Duns Scotus
- John Scottus Eriugena
- John Scottus Eriugena
- The OED via the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
- Protestant Reformation
- Univocity of being
- What is the origin of the dunce cap?
- The Dunce Cap Wasn’t Always So Stupid
-  OED at dunce.
-  OED at dunce.
-  OED at dunce.
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