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A Sketch 'Bookish Fools' by John Madsen

A Sketch: ‘Bookish Fools’ by John Madsen

‘Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere’.
—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night (3.1.39-40)

 Why, thou sayest well. I do now remember a saying, ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ -William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act V, sc 1)

‘Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit’– William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night,1,v

The header image of this new blog is a detail of a print by my father John Madsen after an illuminated Flemish manuscript image of fools, 1340. The exuberant cavortings of these figures in the blog header and the studious reflection in the sketch above, is a hopeful symbol of the atmosphere involved in this grade 7 class and represents the joy of critical thought, as when we are engaged in word inquiry.

As this blog is entitled Word Nerdery, I asked my humanities classes about the words ‘nerds’ and ‘geeks’. What was the difference between the two? Which word was more negative? We also considered the word ‘fool’ as this is an underlying concept in both words.

Despite the laughter when introducing these words, this investigation raised interesting points about synonyms in English. We understood that when a word is totally identical in meaning, one of the words will become obsolete or shift in meaning. Synonyms range along a continuum of closeness. While we noted many similarities between the words, we too were aware of slight differences. Both terms ‘geek‘ and ‘nerd’ suggest knowledge, but geeks perhaps are more obsessively narrow in their knowledge. Both nerds and geeks are socially awkward, according to my students, but nerds possibly more so; geeks are more technologically savvy, while nerds more academic. Nerds lack a sense of style – many students referred to the stereotypical braces (suspenders), pants pulled a little too high,tie, and glasses. Both groups felt that the word ‘geek’ to be somewhat more positive in connotation.

After listing the features of ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’, we then consulted our resources – the trusty Mac dictionary, OED, Chambers Dictionary and  Online Etymology Dictionary, in order to investigate the denotation and etymology.

Here’s what we found:

‘Fool came from a Latin root meaning bellows! ‘Latin follem,follis, lit. ‘bellows,’ but in late popular Latin employed in the sense of ‘windbag,’ empty-headed person, fool’ (OED)

The OED gives the denotation that a fool is: ‘One deficient in judgement or sense, one who acts or behaves stupidly, a silly person, a simpleton. (In Biblical use applied to vicious or impious persons.) The word has in modern English a much stronger sense than it had at an earlier period; it has now an implication of insulting contempt which does not in the same degree belong to any of its synonyms, or to the derivative foolish. Cf. French sot’.

The Online Etymology Dictionary discussed the later development of the professional fool in the 14th century as jester or court clown although noting that it is difficult to determine whether it was an entertainer or an ‘amusing lunatic on the payroll’.

The OED says of this sense ” One who professionally counterfeits folly for the entertainment of others, a jester, clown.The ‘fool’ in great households was often actually a harmless ‘lunatic’ or a person of weak intellect.’

And yes ‘folly‘ comes from from this root as does ‘follicle’ so Latin root follis has led to two base elements in PDE (Present Day English): <fool> and <fol>. Another fascinating discovery was the word ‘foolscap’ and this was the literal meaning- a cap worn by the fool or the court jester in the 1630s. However as we saw in Online Etymology Dictionary in the 1700s it became associated with a type of paper which was watermarked with a court jester’s cap!

Nerd: The Oxford Mac Dictionary tells us that ‘nerd’, a noun, is ‘a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious.’ with an additional meaning of ‘a single-minded expert in a particular technical field: a computer nerd.’

The OED provided this denotation: ‘An insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person: a person who is boringly conventional or studious. Now also:Spec. A person who pursues an unfashionable an unfashionable or highly technical interest with obsessive or exclusive dedication’.

While foolish, socially inept and contemptible are negative, the Chambers Dictionary certainly let loose with a flow of opprobrium: ‘A clumsy, foolish, socially inept, feeble, unathletic, irritating or unprepossessing person, although often (eg computers) knowledgeable’

We discovered the connection to Dr. Seuss in the etymological entries of both dictionaries and then confirmed this with Online Etymology dictionary.

We discovered that ‘geek’ is the older of the two words.

Geek:OED: ‘Freq. Depreciative. An overly diligent, unsociable student: any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit (usually specified in a preceding attributive noun). In the 15th century it was written as ‘geke’, 16th century evolved to ‘gecke’, and in 15th, 18th ‘geck‘ ( geek). It came into English via Low German geck perhaps from a Dutch meaning ‘mad’ or ‘silly’. This according to the OED is related (either as source or derivative) to gecken. From Low German the word passed into the High German dialects, Middle High German geck(e, German geck, and into Scandinavian, Danish gjæk, Swedish gäck, Norwegian gjekk, ? Icelandic gikk

We discovered that even Shakespeare had used this word, although it may be a misuse of ‘gecke’. In 1616 Shakespeare in Cymbeline 161 ‘To taint his Nobler hart & braine, with needlesse ielousy, And to become the geeke and scorne o’th’others vilany.’

We discussed society’s view of knowledge and learning or enthusiasm for learning. Why is it, as these words suggest, an object of derision and scorn? The words imply that if you show an enthusiasm for learning, or a passion for a particular area, you are foolish, socially awkward and lack a sense of fashion!When recently browsing through Idioms and Their Origins by Roger and Linda Flavell, I chanced on the expression ‘bluestocking’ to discover how this too is a derogatory term to deride ‘erudite’ women. The Della Calza society, meaning ‘of the stocking’, was formed in 1400 in Venice by learned men and women with blue stockings as their emblem. This was imitated in 1590 by the Bas-bleu club in Paris which proved a hit with learned women. In London, in 1750 Lady Montgomery ‘tired of the trivial round of cards and gossip’ invited intellectuals and literary figures to her house for discussion. One member of this group Benjamin Stillingfleet often wore blue worsted stockings rather than black silk and so this feature was seized upon to label and deride the group. Yet another case of of public contempt and mockery of learning. 

From this discussion about negative attitudes to learning, we discussed the word stereotype and the dangers of this type of categorisation. We had just made identity charts of ourselves and had been struck by the diversity in interests, religions, places lived, and cultures that had influenced and shaped us. We know that humans are complex and more than one solitary aspect such as race or religion or gender or the fact that we love reading or learning.

We also discovered, as my students had sensed, that the word ‘geek’ is shifting from  a negative and harsh categorising of people to becoming more positive. This process is known as amelioration. ‘Geek’ started to ameliorate in the 1990s as, we conjectured, society became dependent upon the technological knowledge and wizardry of geeks.

After researching the etymologies of these words, students divided into groups to build matrices of the words ‘geek’, ‘nerd’ and ‘fool’.

One group's work on 'fool'

One group’s work on ‘fool’

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Another group’s work on ‘geek’

So why focus on these familiar words? In this initial exploration of three 20 minutes sessions conducted through the week, we have learned :

  • that what applies to one word can apply to hundreds of words
  •  the terms ‘free’ and ‘bound’ base elements. All students were able to identify that these words under investigation were free base elements.
  •  to use resources to gather information. We read several dictionary denotations which added to our understanding of the words. We saw where to find the etymological information in the dictionary entries as well began to understand how to find the root in the Online Etymology Dictionary.
  • that words have stories and a history. Students are beginning to understand the term root.
  •  that words can change over time. Meaning can shift as language evolves and adapts to societal change. Words can shift from negative connotations and become positive and likewise slip to become more negative- we saw this process of  shift in the status of ‘geek’ and ‘fool’.
  •  that bound elements, prefixes and suffixes, can be attached to a base or another suffix to form adjectives, nouns, verbs, adverbs that share the same base. We realized that compound words have two base elements. In the case of ‘foolproof’ or ‘tomfoolery’ both elements are free.
  •  how related words, those sharing a common base, can be displayed in a matrix. Students learned how to identify the elements and construct a matrix using Neil Ramsden’s mini- matrix maker
  •  that synonyms are not interchangeable. There are subtle differences of meaning as we saw with all  three words. We felt ‘fool’ to be the most negative followed by nerd and geek more positive.
  •  that dictionaries are not static. Words are being added all the time, shifts in meaning are being investigated and recorded.We saw that as recently as June this year 1200 new words were added to the Oxford Dictionary, including the word ‘geekery’!!(See Tweet Geekery and Epic Crowd Sourcing)

So theses are the first steps in word inquiry and I am hopeful that this new crop of grade 7 students will thrive in their thinking and research about words and take pride in being ‘word nerds’.

And to be absolutely clear about ‘geek’ and its current moves to a more positive connotation, look at the poster below one student found in his ‘geek’ inquiry.

To become geeky about the word ‘geek’ (or is this suggestion leaning to the academic and therefore nerdy?) read these articles from the Oxford Word blog below :

Are You Calling Me A Geek? Why Thankyou

Embrace Your Geekness

Le Geek, C’est Chic

On Geek Versus Nerd (interesting research by Burr Settles based on words associated with geek and nerd using data from twitter and translated into an infographic)

Further fascinating reading about famous fools such as Tarlton, jester to Elizabeth I (r. 1558-1603); Will Sommers, court jester to Henry the V111; a dwarf-jester called Nai Teh (Mr. Little) at the court of King Mongkut of Siam (r. 1851-68), described by Anna Leonowens in Anna and the King of Siam; Jamie Fleeman (1713-78), the Scottish jester to the laird of Udny who ‘complemented his jesting duties with those of a cowherd and goose guardian.’All these and more can be found here: Fools Are Everywhere, by Beatrice Otto.