The English Pedant – Fool is a superstar word

two fools collide
There are country fools…

As the festive season approaches (it’s all right to call it that, isn’t it, PC people?) there are going to be a lot of foolish things done. People are going to be acting the fool and making fools of themselves. Only a fool would think otherwise, and that is why in this Pedant post we are not pointing out the way some words are being misused; we’re playing with this word.


Dictionary definition (Oxford Online): a person who acts unwisely or imprudently. A silly person.

There are lots of synonyms: that dictionary suggests idiot, ass, halfwit, nincompoop, blockhead, buffoon, dunce, dolt, ignoramus, cretin, imbecile, dullard, moron, simpleton, clod – and that is a pretty wide range. Do dunce and ignoramus really belong in there? They’re not fun words, but critical ones.

fool to cry
Rock’n’roll  fools…

The list of informal options is more in the spirit of the word. Dope, ninny, chump, dimwit, goon, dumbo, dummy, dum-dum, dumb-bell, loon, jackass, bonehead, fathead, numbskull, dunderhead, chucklehead, knucklehead, muttonhead, pudding-head, thickhead, wooden-head, airhead, pinhead, lamebrain, pea-brain, birdbrain, zombie, jerk, nerd, dipstick, donkey, noodle.

Notice how it went a bit American in places? And yet it includes dipstick, as popularised by the UK sitcom Only Fools and Horses.

They then give us a category called British informal, which ranges from old fashioned (nit, nitwit, twit) to the current favourite numpty, along with such essentials as berk, prat, pillock, wally, git, wazzock, divvy, nerk, dork, twerp, mug and muppet.

fools gold
Film fools…

I remember a conversation a few years ago in the office of a local radio station, where a rather strange young man had just started appearing, on work experience. He wasn’t stupid, he wasn’t unpleasant, so he wasn’t really a berk or a pillock, or a git; he was just a bit slow and a committee of us decide the word was plonker (another Only Fools staple). Not even a fully-fledged one, but a bit of a plonker.

One very minor question which has been puzzling the Pedant since teen years is this: where exactly did twit come from? The explanation that has accompanied it in the deep recesses of my mind all these years is that it actually means a pregnant fish. Now, though, thanks to seeing it in that list just after nitwit, it occurs to me that perhaps it is an abbreviation of that word. Lose the ni and you’ve got twit.

However, this is The Fool Show, and twit will have to get its agent to try harder to bring it the attention it deserves.

Fool is a superstar among words, celebrated countless times in song. Poor Little Fool (Ricky Nelson), Fool if you Think it’s Over (Chris Rea), You Little Fool (Elvis Costello), Foolish Little Girl (The Chiffons), Fool on the Hill (The Beatles) – and that’s just where it appears in the title.

fool for your loving
Heavy rock fools…

But then there is one that takes us into the murky world of Americanisation: Fooled Around and Fell in Love (Elvin Bishop). Suddenly the word isn’t so innocent and harmless. Because what starts out as a boy and girl playing, or fooling around, can lead to sex, and that, as we know, can lead to all sorts of trouble. The trouble in Elvin Bishop’s case was that it ceased to be play and became serious, which, to a man who tells us at the start that he “must have been through about a million girls”, is bad news.

You may or may not think he’s a fool for thinking that.

immaculate fools
and Immaculate Fools

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