On last Tuesday’s show, Sue from Elk Rapids asked about the word nincompoop. It’s always irritating when research runs up against a brick wall, but it no longer surprises me or frustrates me as much as it once did. Aging and mellowing, I suppose. The meaning is secure: an idiot or a fool. The etymology is not.
“Origin unknown” is the standard label, but there have been some guesses. For instance, the last element (-poop) referred to the buttocks or rump in the very early 17th century. That, in turn, eventually was applied to excrement. The English word seems to have come from a Dutch word (poep) that meant ordure. The Dutch used it as a slang term to refer to migrant workers from northern Germany. “Foreign crap” eventually softened to “foreign fool.”
The first element (nincom-) is harder to pin down. Samuel Johnson ascribed it to the Latin phrase, non compos mentis, unsound of mind, but the Oxford English Dictionary rejects that on the basis of earlier spellings such as nicompoop. The OED suggests that there may be a link to the word ninny or to a specific French word, nicodème, slang for a simpleton or naïve person.
The word comes from the proper name Nicodemus, mentioned in the Gospel of John as a Pharisee, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Curious but cautious, he visited Jesus under cover of darkness to ask a few questions about his teaching. During the exchange, he comes across as a man who takes words far too literally – therefore, a bit of a fool. [ See the passage here.]
Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition
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