John Duns Scotus was a Scottish Catholic theologian in the thirteenth century with an extremely unfortunate legacy. At the time, he was a highly respected academic on par with Thomas Aquinas, and accumulated legions of followers called Dunses or Scotists who were largely in control of European universities until the Renaissance. However, humanist reformers soon came into conflict with the more conservative Dunses, and they began using the word duns as an insult, referring to anyone who opposed progress, and, later, dull-witted people in general. Over time, the spelling changed to dunce, and once dunce caps were used as a disciplinary measure in Western schools, the word became ingrained in our culture. After peaking in 1645, usage of the word dunce has been steadily declining over time.
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Hello! I'm Adam Aleksic, a senior studying government and linguistics at Harvard University, where I co-founded the Harvard Undergraduate Linguistics Society. In addition to etymology, I also really enjoy trivia, politics, vexillology, geography, board games, conlanging, art history, and law.