linguistics and lexicography Love English

Numb-headed numbnuts, ninnies and Numskulls

© PhotoDisc / Getty ImagesMacmillan’s crowd-sourced Open Dictionary is a great place to keep an eye on new words and niche vocabulary. It has a marvellous variety of novel phrases, slang, specialist terms, vogue words, regionalisms and other items not used often enough or widely enough to be considered core vocabulary – though any that shift towards mainstream use may be ‘promoted’ to the main dictionary, and these two strands might ultimately be integrated.

A recent entry to the Open Dictionary, submitted by Jethro from Poland, is numbnuts. It’s defined, with gentle understatement, as ‘a person who isn’t particularly bright’. So it’s an insult, and a fun one to say aloud: its repetition, rhythm and hint of rudeness give it the flavour of a childhood favourite. It’s the sort of word you can imagine Roald Dahl inventing if it hadn’t already existed.

Slang lexicographer Jonathon Green dates numbnuts to the late 1960s, and has also recorded numbhead, numbwit and nimwit (by analogy with dimwit) numbass, and other more colourful variants that cluster around similar sounds. There’s also numps, numpty, nimrod and nincompoop, and a little further off we find  dumbo, dumb-ass, dunce, dunderhead, chump, schmuck, and Monty Python’s Gumbys. I have a soft spot for numbskull because of the comic strip The Numskulls, which I loved as a child. And I recently dreamt I called someone an ‘ignorant ninny’, which belongs in the same general set (though it doesn’t appear to be an abbreviation of nincompoop, as I originally imagined).

Numbnuts, then, is one of a great many similar words that mean ‘fool’, more or less; English is not unusual in having such insults in abundance. People love calling each other fools or referring to each other as fools, be it with teasing affection or bare hostility. The more ways we can do this, the richer the available range of expression.

Numb comes to us all the way from an Old English word meaning ‘take, seize, grasp’ (the ‘b’ was a later addition without etymological justification). The idea is that we are ‘taken’ or ‘seized’ by cold or shock, etc. This familiar adjective, indicating a lack of sensation or feeling, has remained with us over many centuries, but in the mid-19th, according to the OED, it gained the additional sense ‘clumsy, stupid, mindless’.

This secondary sense of numb, together with the word’s phonetic similarity to dumb, dummy and company, may have helped fuel the many ‘fool’ type num– and nim– words in use today. And with each one’s success, the likelihood grows that more will be coined. Don’t be a numbnuts – start using numpleton or numbleberry today! Or better yet, invent your own.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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