My daughter decided to use her “text a friend” option yesterday while being involved in a heated online linguistic discussion in the XBox world of Halo. She is a freshman at college so naturally this message arrived in the afternoon, when no sane student is actually working.
Those of you who have spent any time with an online Halo team will know that the level of verbal interaction tends not to be at a particularly high level. I would hazard a guess that the average Halo language sample is made up mostly of profanities, some of which I’m not sure even I would recognize as such. However, the big, big topic for the day was all about the gradeability of adjectives, specifically as applied to the word stupid.
The question was; which is correct – stupidest or most stupid? A natural sub-question was whether is was better to say stupider or more stupid. It was after a round of arguing that my daughter decided to call in The Word Guy.
Typically, I always love to be right on questions like this, but in practice, some English language “truths” turn out to be more opinion than science, and the rules that are used to determine what is and isn’t “correct” are more complex than hyperdimensional probabilistic quantum equations where you aren’t allowed to use vowels or the number zero.
In general, adjectives (or words that can behave like adjectives) with a single syllable can be graded by adding an -er or an -est to form the comparative and superlative forms. Dumb, dumber, and dumbest are OK, as are thick, thicker, and thickest. Words with three or more syllables stay the same but need more and most to be added to the front. So, we see simple-minded, more simple-minded, and most simple-minded, as well as ludicrous, more ludicrous, and most ludicrous.
However, when you use two-syllable words like stupid and inane, things can get a little wooly, which I accept is not a formal linguistics term but certainly seems to fit the general feeling one gets when faced with choices between adding an ending or using a preceding more/most.
So in true prevaricating style, I texted my daughter back that both stupidest and most stupid are fine.
But that, of course, wasn’t satisfying enough for me, so I decided to try to find a few numbers using the Google search engine. Here are the results expressed in ghits (Google hits):
Most stupid: 593,000
We can see that stupidest is the winner by far, being used almost three times more often than its most stupid counterpart. If you were to describe this article as “the stupidest analysis of stupid on the planet,” you might be factually wrong but grammatically with the majority.
Moving on to the comparative forms, I found the following ghits:
More stupid: 662,000
Here, the figures as less conclusive. I’d be OKish to say that more stupid is the more popular, but it would be better to chase down more data to support this. What IS worth noting is that if these figures are reasonably correct, the “correct” gradeable triplet is as follows:
stupid – more stupid – stupidest
As I said earlier, the “rules” in this case seem to be slipperier (more slippy?) than a bucket of eels that’s been filled with baby oil.See how the comparative and superlative forms are inconsistent with each other? Welcome to the English language, eh?
The word stupid is defined by the OED as;
Having one’s faculties deadened or dulled; in a state of stupor, stupefied, stunned; esp. hyperbolically, stunned with surprise, grief, etc.
As an adjective, it pops up in Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale back in 1611;
Is not your Father growne incapeable Of reasonable affayres?
Is he not stupid With Age, and altring Rheumes?
Can he speake? heare? Know man, from man? (Act IV, Scene iv)
The word appears to come from the Latin stupere, which means “to be stunned or benumbed,” and is the same root for the word stupor that can be seen as a noun in 1358 to describe;
A state of insensibility or lethargy; spec. in Path., a disorder characterized by great diminution or entire suspension of sensibility.
John de Trevisa, in his Bartholomeus (de Glanvilla) De proprietatibus rerum (1398), uses the wonderful phrase;
Stupor is a lettynge and stonyenge of lymmes and crokynge of the vtter partyes of the body for colde so that it semyth that the lymmes shrynke and slepe.
Having one’s “vtter partyes crokynged” sounds more painful than stuporific, but it is at least a good definition of the word.
There is some evidence that stupid was also used to describe a paralyzed part of the body, but this is confined to a usage in 1638 and this connotation clearly never caught on.
Now, at about the same time as Shakespeare was using stupid to describe a state of stupor, its use to describe someone “wanting in or slow of mental perception; lacking ordinary activity of mind; slow-witted, dull” (OED, Vol XVI, p.1000) was also growing. It’s this more pejorative use of the word that is typical of today’s use.
During the 19th century, it took on the flavor of meaning of something “Void of interest, tiresome, boring, dull,” which could be applied to objects and situations, not just people. When Mary Braddon wrote “We were quartered at a stupid sea-port town” in her 1862 novel Lady Audley’s Secret, she wasn’t referring to the mental state of the town but its tedious nature.
It was also used during this period as a noun to refer to someone as being a stupid, as in “You do not know what a thoughtless, heartless stupid I have been. (Mrs. Alexander, Valerie’s Fate, 1885.) This is similar to how someone might refer to a person as a stupid today, or in the now-cliched T-shirt phrase, “I’m with stupid.”
It seems that in the mid-to-late 20th century that the word took on a more insulting slant and became a term of abuse or disparagement. In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951), we find the sentence, “Anyway, it was December and all, and it was cold as a witch’s teat, especially on top of that stupid hill.” Unlike Braddon’s stupid sea-port, the stupid used to refer to the hill is derogatory.
Since the 20th century, the word seems to be used almost exclusively as a pejorative and calling someone who appears a little sleepy or unfocused as stupid would be unwise.
The word can also function as the noun stupidity, and as the adverb, stupidly, to describe something being done foolishly.
And don’t forget, as Einstein once quipped;
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.