dunce /’dʌns/

Way back in 1988, a relatively unknown professor of Physics became an international celebrity by writing a book that few people have actually read but many people cite as a “classic” of popular science writing. The professor was Stephen Hawking and the book was A Brief History of Time. Prior to the release of this best seller, Hawking had already made a name for himself in the world of Physics in the field of cosmology – the origin and development of the universe – and he had been awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 1982. However, it was the Brief History that catapulted him to world-wide recognition.

Physicist Stephen Hawking

Physicist Stephen Hawking

By the beginning of the 21st century, his fame became obvious: He began to appear on TV. His “acting” career includes guest roles – either as himself or a cartoon – in The Simpsons, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Family Guy, and many others. He also “sang” on Pink Floyd’s “Keep Talking” from their final album, The Division Bell.

Considered as a genius and successor to Einstein, Hawking has garnered a string (theory?) of academic awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the United States.

Hawking receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

However, his latest book, released only a few days ago, has already caused him to lose the respect of a number of people throughout the world, and not because of his stand on theoretical physics but his attitude to God. Or lack of.

Hawkins and Mlodinow The Grand Design

The Grand Design

You see, in his latest work, co-authored by Leonard Mlodinow, Hawking has suggested that as far as the creation of the universe is concerned, God isn’t necessary. The offending passage seems to be the following:

Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch-paper and set the universe going.

Suddenly, Hawking – to some – went from hero to zero faster than the universe is expanding. For years, it has been OK for Hawking to comment on the universe as a physicist but now he is treading on the toes of theologians, and that upsets them because scientist are not allowed to talk about religion. The theologians, however, feel quite at home to pretend to be physicists and denounce Hawking as being at best, “mistaken” or at worst, “an agent of Satan.” Neither of the arguments is backed up by any reference to alternative theories but that’s not something to bother theologians.

One blogger was more charitable when he said, “I do suspect that Dr. Hawking might actually be clever, since you probably don’t get to be Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge (a seat formerly occupied by Sir Isaac Newton) by being a dunce.”

Now here’s an interesting word: dunce. In cultural imagery, it evokes a picture of some hapless child standing in the corner of a classroom wearing a tall, pointed hat with a “D” on it. Talk about The Scarlet Letter!

So where does the word comes from? It turns out to be an eponym, a word coined from the name of an actual person who lived in the Middle Ages.

John Duns Scotus was born in 1265 in the village of Duns close to the northern border with England. He went to study at Oxford University in 1288 and was ordained as a Franciscan monk in 1291. Unlike Hawking, Scotus was keen to find a place for God in the universe and wrote on Natural Theology- a branch of theology that seeks to prove the existence of God by rational and natural means, without resorting to revelation of faith. His proofs were similar to those of theologians who opt for the “First Cause” solution – that because all effects demand a cause, there had to be a first cause, and that first cause was God. it also ties into the other common notion that “something cannot come from nothing”; a premise many modern cosmologists eschew by saying that there is no such thing as “nothing” – there is only “something.

John Duns Scotus

Although he died in 1308, his influence and ideas continued into the 16th century, with his supporters initially being know as “Scotists” but eventually becoming “Dunsmen” or “Dunses.” In 1530, William Tindale wrote an article called An answere vnto Sir Thomas Mores dialoge in which he said;

Remember ye not how..the old barkyng curres, Dunces disciples & lyke draffe called Scotistes, the children of darkenesse, raged in euery pulpit agaynst Greke Latin and Hebrue.

These 16th century critics of Scotus accused the Dunses of being pedantic and unchangeable, seeking to stick rigidly to old ideas rather than listen to or accept new ideas. One of those critics, the Catholic writer Richard Stanyhurst, penned the following in 1577;

Duns, which tearme is so triuiall and common in all schools, that whoso surpasseth others either in cauilling sophistrie, or subtill philosophie, is forthwith nickenamed a Duns.

This pejorative meaning of the word dunce is the one that is used today, as the OED puts it, “One who shows no capacity for learning; a dull-witted, stupid person; a dullard, blockhead.”

During the 17th century, there was a brief flirtation with the use of dunce as a verb meaning “to puzzle, pose, prove to be a dunce” or “to make a dunce of.” However, after a first appearance in 1611, the last example offered by the OED is a mere 50 years later, after which it fell into obscurity. The Corpus of Contemporary American shows no examples of dunce as anything other than a noun – or as part of a noun phrase such as “dunce cap.”

Sometime between 1711 and 1726, the popular satirist Jonathan Swift came up with this epigraph;

When a true genius appears, you can know him by this sign: that all the dunces are in a confederacy against him.

The phrase provided the inspiration for the title of a novel by John Kennedy Toole called The Confederacy of Dunces, which was published in 1980, a full 11 years after the author had committed suicide, and has gone on to become a modern classic.

The Confederacy of Dunces

The Confederacy of Dunces

So what about the dunce‘s cap? Well, that makes an appearance in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, first published in 1840, where he says, “And on a small shelf, the dunce‘s cap.” The use of a pointy cap is culturally very old, with the earliest being traced to the Bronze Age and as far back as 1400 BC. During the Inquisition, penitents would have to wear the capirote, a pointed hood that is used even today by Spanish Nazareno priests during Holy Week. In mythology, wizards and witches use pointed hats, as do dwarfs and gnomes. So the pointy hat for dunces could be from any of a number of sources.

Priest wearing capirotes

Nazareno priest in capirotes

And the practice of sending a child to the “dunce‘s corner” continues even today. An article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper on 5th January, 2010, describes how many schools are moving away from using this as a form of punishment. They say that, “health and safety chiefs have warned that the practice is cruel, describing it as a ‘stress position’ that could breach a child’s human rights.” The recommendation is that instead of damaging a child’s self esteem and humiliating him or her in public, an unruly child should instead be made “to explain to the class why he is interrupting the lesson.” Gosh, now there’s a deterrent to some 17-year-old knife-carrying thug.

Oh my self esteem!

Still, the fact that the dunce‘s corner is being discussed at all means it is still around, even though Dickens isn’t.

Wordle: dunce - etymology


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Filed under Etymology, Vocabulary, Word Origins

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