Dunce

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It is one of the great ironies of etymology that the name of one of the most powerful and highly regarded thinkers of his time should have come to be used as a common noun meaning 'blockhead' or 'slow learner'.

  • John Duns Scotus (c1265/6-1308) was a Franciscan friar who taught at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris. His international reputation, and approval of the Roman Catholic church for his very precise theological arguments favouring the conservative (traditional) teachings of the church led to his being given the sobriquet of doctor subtilis, 'the subtle doctor'. He was regarded as the official 'doctor' of the Franciscan Order, setting him against Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), the 'official' theologian of the Dominican Order from 1314, known as the 'Angelic Doctor'. Aquinas's doctrines came to be labelled Thomism, and Duns Scotus's as Scotism. The school of Scotists were a "predominating Scholastic sect" (OED) until the ideas of humanists and the Reformation replaced the careful elaborations of medieval theology. He was much admired by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, who strove to popularize John's idea of haeccitas, the separate individuality or 'quiddity' of things.
His name means simply 'John (surnamed 'from [the town of] Duns in Scotland)'.
  • Towards the end of the Middle Ages, Scotists came to be seen as sophisticated and subtle thinkers. Duns Scotus's followers called themselves 'Dunsmen' or 'dunces'. By opponents, they were seen as splitters of hairs, or over-sophisticated, precise and cavilling. Hence a dunce came to be regarded as 'too clever by half'. In the conflicts of the Reformation, Scotist theology was seen as opposed to all that the new theology stood and fought for. So a dunce became 'a blockhead', 'a stubborn opponent of new ideas', and, by extension, 'a stubborn opponent of any ideas'. As theology receded from popular consciousness, dunce became used in schools for 'blockhead', 'slow learner', 'bottom of the class'. In some schools, poor students were required to wear a dunce's cap, "a cap of conical shape, sometimes marked with a capital D, and placed on the head of a dunce at school" (OED).
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