A dunce is a person considered to be incapable of learning.
The word is derived from the name of the Scholastic theologian and philosopher John Duns Scotus, also referred to as Doctor Subtillis, or "Subtle Doctor", whose works on logic, theology and philosophy were accepted textbooks in the universities from the 14th century.
Duns or Dunsman was a name applied by early opponents to the followers of Duns Scotus, who were less disparagingly called the Scotists. When, in the 16th century, the Scotists obstinately opposed the new learning (i.e., the King James Bible), the term duns or dunce became, in the mouths of the Protestants a term of abuse, a synonym for one incapable of scholarship. This was the etymology given by Richard Stinhurst. Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, maintained that the source of the word was unknown.
Dunces are often comedically shown wearing paper cone hats, known as dunce caps, with the word "dunce" or "dumb", or simply a capitalized "D" on them. Schoolchildren were sometimes compelled to wear a dunce cap and to sit on a stool in the corner as a form of humiliating punishment for misbehaving or for failing to demonstrate that they had properly performed their studies.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
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