Where Does the Word Dunce Come From

Olivia B. asks: Where did the word dunce come from and who came up with the dunce cap?


The word dunce derives from the name of an extremely accomplished religious scholar- John Duns Scotus (1265/66-1308), an influential philosopher and theologian of the High Middle Ages. If you guessed that his ideas and those who touted them were (somewhat unfairly) eventually widely panned as moronic, you’d be correct.

Born near the Scottish village of Duns, from which he took the name, Duns Scotus was ordained into the Catholic Franciscan Order at St. Andrew’s Priory, Northampton, England in 1291. Over the next 17 years, Duns Scotus strongly influenced both religious and secular thought.

One of Duns Scotus’ most notable contributions was the idea that existence was abstract, but it remained the same for all beings and things, only differing in terms of degree. However, he was perhaps most well known for making complex arguments, and in particular to prove the existence of God and the Immaculate Conception. For instance, his long and detailed argument for the existence of God can more or less be summed up as follows:

1) Something, A, is produced.
2) It is produced either by itself, nothing, or another.
3) Not by nothing, for nothing causes nothing.
4) Not by itself, for an effect never causes itself.
5) Therefore, by another; call it B.
6) We return to 2). B is produced either by itself, nothing, or another. The ascending series will either continue infinitely or we finally reach something which has nothing prior to it.
7) An infinite ascending series is impossible.
8) Therefore, a simple first efficient cause exists.

Given his detailed and genuinely well respected analyses in his time, Duns Scotus earned the nickname “the Subtle Doctor,” and an entire school of philosophy, Scotism, was named for him.

Important to the discussion at hand, Duns Scotus was a fiercely devout Catholic who even advocated for the forcible baptism into the One True Church of Jewish children and adults. Along with his extremely intellectual form of reasoning, this strict adherence to Church doctrine and teachings are ultimately what led to him becoming the namesake for dunce, despite the man himself being anything but.

Skip forward approximately 200 years after his death, and in the interim his ideas were still being widely taught and his work still well respected… that is, until the Protestant Reformation had reached England. Even before Henry VIII began the switch from Catholicism to Anglicism, the Reformation was tearing through northern Europe and its ideas, as well as the new thinking that came with the Renaissance, had begun to seep into the island nation.

Nonetheless, traditional Catholics fought back hard, and often relied on Duns Scotus’ theories and way of reasoning in their defense of the Church and its doctrines. However, many of the modern scholars of the late Renaissance saw Duns Scotus’ arguments as “hair splitting”…