Dunce is a mild insult in English meaning a person who is slow at learning or stupid. In art, dunces are often comedically shown wearing paper cone hats – dunce caps – marked with ‘dunce’, ‘dumb’, or ‘D’. Schoolchildren were sometimes compelled to wear a dunce cap and to stand or sit on a stool in the corner as a form of punishment for misbehaving or for failing to demonstrate that they had properly performed their studies.
The word is derived from the name of the Scottish Scholastic theologian and philosopher John Duns Scotus. Along with Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, he was one of the leading Scholastic philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. Duns Scotus wrote treatises on theology, grammar, logic and metaphysics, which were widely influential throughout Western Europe, earning Duns the papal accolade Doctor Subtilis (Subtle Teacher). Duns remains highly esteemed in the Roman Catholic Church, and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.
The followers of Duns Scotus were called the Dunses, Dunsmen, or Scotists. When in the sixteenth century the Scotists argued against Renaissance humanism, the term duns or dunce became, in the mouths of the Protestants, a term of abuse and a synonym for one incapable of scholarship. This was the etymology given by Richard Stanyhurst. Samuel Johnson, on the other hand, maintained that the source of the word was unknown.
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