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Column: Nincompoops and knuckleheads

The origins of the words we use every day are nothing short of wonderful. The words themselves are wonderful, too, the way you suddenly see one that has been right in front of you but you never noticed before.

Like the word “nincompoop.” Can there be a better sounding word for what this word describes? It seems to me that I use it more and more now that I’m retired.

Folks come up to me and ask if I’m still teaching, and I say, “No.”

Then they ask how I liked it when I did.

I reply that, “I liked it better before the nincompoops took over.”

The thing about nincompoops in large organizations is that one gets in and hires another. They’re like a virus.

The word itself comes from a Dutch phrase “nicht om poep,” which means the female relative of a fool. (Sorry, ladies. I know way more men who deserve this label more than women.)

Another favorite term of mine isn’t so much a word as a phrase: “Petty functionary.”

Have you ever hung on during a phone call to, for example, your cell phone provider? You beep and count and wait and listen and choose alternatives and several minutes go by (minutes they’re charging you for) and then finally you get someone on the other end. You say you’re having trouble with your cellular whatchamacallit and the voice says, kind of snottily, “Weeeeeellll, I don’t deal with that.”

That’s a perfect example of a petty functionary. It’s hard to tell functionaries and nincompoops apart. There’s a thin line between them.

Which brings me to the word “knucklehead.” We don’t want to wear any one word out when it comes to the kind of people we’re talking about here, so once that petty functionary turns out to be a nincompoop, we begin to suspect that perhaps this person also used to be a boxer, back in the day when no one wore any gloves. Too many shots to the old brain case and some nincompoop who thought he could box is now a knucklehead.

There is another possible origin for the word knucklehead. Back in the 18th century, British sailors were required to salute their officers by putting their knuckles to their foreheads. Officers were highly suspected of being petty functionaries who morphed into nincompoops as soon as they were given a little power; the term “knucklehead” was a derogatory term used to describe them.

After reading the stuff I’ve written now for so long, I’d guess you might suspect me of “pulling your leg.” If so, you’re entirely justified, because I have done so on occasion. But, in fact, this leg-pulling phrase also owes its origin to the British. The yucky interpretation goes back to the 1700s, when hangings were popular in England. They were not “long drop” hangings, which were quite quick when well done. Instead, these were more like prolonged suffocations. Friends of the person being hanged would pull down on his legs to hasten his demise.

“Pulling your leg?” Ooofta.

Finally, I’d like to thank my brother’s son-in-law for this word: “Skinflint.” One doesn’t hear that anymore. He uses it to describe people who foolishly try to get cheaply by at whatever they do. People who do that have a “skinflint mentality,” he said. Nice. I’ve known a couple of nincompoops and a knucklehead or two who would qualify.

The word “skinflint” came from before there were matches, and fires were started by striking a flint to produce sparks. Keeping that flint going until it was as thin as your skin, and risking shivering from the cold because there was no fire, describes a skinflint.

In that case, living where you might freeze to death for lack of a fire?

A nincompoop, beyond a doubt.