I looked up the word dunce during my marathon writing session for the final book in the Secrets of the Isles trilogy, just to make sure I hadn’t been using it for years when I shouldn’t have been (because those sneak in!), and I was fascinated at what I learned! It had certainly been around long enough for my 1906-set story, but I had no idea its history was so interesting. So naturally, I have to share.
Dunce is actually taken from the name of John Duns Scotus, and before it was dunce, it was actually Duns’ man. So who, you ask, is John Duns Scotus? He was a Scottish scholar of philosophy and theology who lived from 1265-1308 and whose followers ran the universities just before the Reformation. By the 1520s, people were lashing out against the medieval theology and “knowledge,” and John Duns Scotus had become their archetype for the academic who was so obstinately focused on minutia that they failed to see larger truths. By the 1570s, dunce meant “ignoramus, dullard, dolt,” especially dull-witted students. The dunce cap that we all recognize from historical classroom scenes dates from around 1792.
Whenever I come across a word like this taken from someone’s name, I always shudder. Something to avoid in life: that sort of legacy!