By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Words, of course, are the tools of the writer’s trade. But what are some good words, perhaps even some unusual but wonderfully descriptive words, which mean ‘stupid’ or ‘foolish’ or ‘gullible’? Here are some of the best, most useful, as well as some of the most unusual synonyms for ‘stupid’ and ‘stupidity’ (and for foolish people).
This word literally comes from the Greek for ‘dull’: ‘oxymoron’, denoting a phrase containing two opposites, literally means ‘sharp-dull’. Someone who is moronic or a moron is ‘dull’, then; but this word is often frowned upon because it was also used to describe those who are mentally disabled.
Originally denoting a substance whose particles who close together – whose particles, in other words, were thickly crowded together – the word ‘dense’ came to be applied to people, and specifically to those whose intelligence leaves something to be desired, in the early nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation is from the essayist Charles Lamb in 1822.
How, then, did thick itself come to be a synonym for stupid? The word was applied to people who were dull of hearing some time in the sixteenth century, and by the end of that century was being used for those who were dull of perception in a mental rather than auditory sense. The famous simile from 2 Henry IV, ‘as thicke as Tewksbury mustard’, is the OED’s earliest citation for the word ‘thick’ in the sense of ‘stupid’.
The word ‘obtuse’ denotes someone who is slow to understand, or insensitively stupid in their behaviour. The origin of this term as a synonym for ‘stupid’ is easier to understand when we learn that it originally meant ‘dull’ or ‘blunt’ or ‘stupid’ on classical Latin.
An imbecile is somebody of weak or inferior intellect, but in Psychology the term refers specifically to somebody whose mental disabilities rendered them somewhere between a moron (less severe than an imbecile) and an idiot (more severe than an imbecile).
Let’s branch out into less familiar territory and celebrate some more niche words for stupidity and stupid people for a moment. The word ‘gobemouche’ certainly fits the bill: it’s a word denoting a gullible person who believes everything, and is, rather pleasingly, from the French for ‘fly-swallower’ – the idea being that a slow-witted person always has their mouth open.
A fool. Dating from at least as early as the fifteenth century, ‘wantwit’ means a fool or stupid person – someone who ‘wants’ (or lacks) wit.
Defined by the OED as ‘A fool, simpleton, noodle, blockhead’, this wonderful word has been in use since 1500.
Returning us to the realm of the more familiar here, ‘mindless’ is a good all-round synonym for ‘stupid’ or unintelligent: it’s been in use for over a thousand years.
This word means ‘foolish or silly’, although its use is rather rare. It’s found in one of the eighteenth-century dictionaries by Nathan Bailey that preceded Samuel Johnson’s more famous one of 1755.
On a related note, an unusual synonym for ‘stupid’ might be ‘phronemophobic’: having a fear of thinking. This is a rare term, but is useful to know…
This handy adjective combines stupidity or ignorance with the need to announce such ignorance to the world: ‘ultracrepidation’ is practised by someone who is a) stupid and b) overly critical. So to ultracrepidate means to criticise something that is beyond one’s sphere of knowledge, and an ultracrepidarian is one who ultracrepidates.
The word has a curious etymology: it was first recorded in 1819 by the essayist William Hazlitt, who called the editor William Gifford ‘an Ultra-Crepidarian critic.’ But the term ultimately has its origins in the classical world: the Greek artist Apelles said to a shoemaker who presumed to criticise his painting, ‘Sutor, ne ultra crepidam’: i.e. ‘do not venture beyond the sole’, or, in other words, don’t venture to offer an opinion on things you know nothing about.
Sticking with ‘ultra’ words, this term denotes someone whose credulity spills over into gullibility. As Hartley Coleridge put it in 1849: ‘The great moralist, who balanced an ultrafidian credulity in the supernatural with an extraordinary degree of scepticism in things natural and human.’
A slight variation on the idea of being stupid: this word refers to speaking foolishly or saying silly things.
This concludes our pick of the best synonyms for stupid and stupidity (and stupid person). Of course, there are many others we could have included, but we opted for the most interesting as well as the most directly useful here (though some are less useful and some more interesting than others!).