21 Words for 'Fool' And Their Oafish Origins

This small pup is looking festively foolish.
This small pup is looking festively foolish.
Ирина Мещерякова/iStock via Getty Images

This April 1, you may find yourself gleefully shouting “April fools!” after successfully pranking someone. But why limit yourself to just one word? English has a rich vocabulary for, well, oafs, dolts, bumpkins, schnooks, and goofs. Their origins, whether confirmed or conjectured, are just as colorful. If you’re looking to spice up your vocabulary this April Fools’ Day, here are 21 words to use instead of fool.

1. Oaf

The word oaf, first recorded in the early 1600s, originally referred to an ugly child that elves left behind to replace one they’d carried off, as Merriam Webster explains. Deriving from a Scandinavian root related to English’s elf, oaf evolved from “changeling” to “stupid or clumsy person.”

2. Dolt

A dolt is a “dull person”—quite literally so. It’s first found in the form doltish in the 1540s and appears to be related to dull and dold (“stupid, inert”), an obsolete past participial form of the verb to dull that might also be responsible for doldrums.

3. Sap

A young man cuts the tree branch he's sitting on
Only a sap would expose a tree's sapwood like this.
photoschmidt/iStock via Getty Images

A sap, or “gullible person,” may have been shortened in the early 1800s from sapskull, or someone whose head is like sapwood, the soft, sap-conducting wood between a tree’s bark and the hard, inner timber.

4. Boob

In the early 1900s, it seems American English created the shorter boob from the much older booby (1600), which the great English lexicographer Samuel Johnson defined as a “dull, heavy, stupid fellow; a lubber.” While its ultimate origin is unclear, there are several theories. A leading one takes boob back to the Spanish bobo, “fool,” also used of seabirds, hence the blue-footed booby. Bobo, in turn, may come from the Latin balbus, meaning “stammering.”

5. Lubber

A colorful grasshopper clings to a stalk of grass
As its name suggests, the lubber grasshopper is said to be quite clumsy.
Christian Ouellet/iStock via Getty Images

Speaking of lubber, this old-fashioned insult for a “big, clumsy fellow” goes all the way back to the 14th century. It might be from an even older Scandinavian-based lobi, “lazy lout,” or the French lobeor, “swindler, parasite.” Lubbers first mocked idle monks, so-called abbey-lubbers, before ridiculing inept sailors as landlubbers.

6. Buffoon

Send in the buffoons. In the late 16th century, a buffoon was a professional clown. The word ultimately comes from the Italian buffare, “to puff the cheeks,” a comic gesture, which became buffa (“a jest”) and then buffone (“jester”).

7. Bozo

Postcard photo of the main cast of Chicago's Bozo's Circus
Bozo was a big fan of clowning around.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One of the most famous clowns in American culture was Bozo the Clown. The name Bozo may owe its rise to early 20th-century vaudeville acts, as word researcher Peter Reitan argues, but as for the origin of bozo itself? There are many theories. One suggests bozo comes from the Spanish bozal, a pejorative term used for slaves who couldn’t speak Spanish well, hence “stupid” or “simple.”

8. Bumpkin

This word for a “rustic rube” first insulted Dutchmen as short, stumpy people. The word might be from the Dutch boomken, “little tree,” or bommekijn, “little barrel,” which resemble stumps.

9. Rube

Speaking of rubes, this bumpkin brethren comes from a shortened form of the given name Reuben, a biblical name commonly found among those who lived in the countryside. The derogatory Reuben is found in print in 1855; rube, in 1891.

10. Hick

Similar to Reuben/rube is hick, another derogatory term for a “provincial country person” that comes from a pet form of the name Richard. While hick is primarily found in American English today, it’s found in the written record as early as 1565. A 1702 use in Irishman Richard Steele’s comedy The Funeralmakes the meaning of hick quite clear: “Richard Bumpkin! Ha! a perfect Country Hick.”

11. Yokel

A Simpsons doll
It's no coincidence Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel lives on Rural Route 9.
Francis Bijl, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Simpsons’ “Cletus the Slack-jawed Yokel” may have originally been a Reuben, which is to say he was a Richard, which is to say he was a … Jacob? The origin of yokel, first attested in the 1810s, is unclear, but one suggestion is that it’s borrowed from the German Jokel, a disparaging diminutive of Jakob, used as a stereotypical name for a farmer.

12. Kook

Kook, a “crazy person,” is first found in American English slang in 1960, apparently shortened from kooky, first attested just a year before. Kooks are considered a bit cuckoo, which may well be the source of the word.

13. Doofus

Doofus also first emerges in the record in the 1960s. It could be a variant of goofus and playing with the doo in doo-doo or doodad. It might also be connected to doof, a Scottish term for a dullard probably borrowed from Scandinavian or Dutch words related to deaf.

14. Goofus

As for goofus, it’s first found in the 1910s as a humorous surname: The OED cites “Daniel Goofus” and “Joe Goofus” in 1916 and 1917, respectively. A goof is recorded around the same time. It may be altered from the Early Modern English goff, via French goffe (“awkward, stupid”) or Old English gegaf (“buffoonery”). Gaff and gaffe may have further influenced goofus/goof.

15. Schlub

Yiddish is a rich source of “fool” words in English, including schlub. It’s similar to oaf, and comes from the Polish wordżłób, which means “blockhead” and also gave us the word slob.

16. and 17. Schmo and Schmuck

Schmo, or “jerk,” is probably a euphemistic form of schmuck, an “irritating person” that literally means “penis” in Yiddish. Schmuck may be from the Polish shmuk, a “grass snake.”

18. Schnook

Yiddish might also give us schnook, which the great American journalist H. L. Mencken glossed as a “sucker” in 1948. Some suppose schnook comes from the Yiddish shnuk, “an elephant’s trunk,” although the connection between a long snout and a simpleton is unclear.

19. Klutz

A distracted woman walks into a pole
Walking into a pole is a total klutz move.
Valeriy_G/iStock via Getty Images

Klutz is another Yiddish contribution to English’s lexicon of lambasting. This word for a clumsy person goes back to German roots for “block” or “lump” related to English’s clod and clot. Think blockhead.

20. Nincompoop

While Samuel Johnson famously derived this fanciful term for a fool from the Latin non compos mentis (“not of sound mind”), its origin remains a mystery. Early records (late 17th century) suggest nincompoop could come from a surname. Philologist Ernest Weekly takes up this suggestion, supposing nincompoop could come from the French Nicodemus, a name used for “fool,” joined with a Dutch-derived poop, also used for “fool.”

21. Nimrod

The origin of nimrod is another great mystery of English’s tomfoolery. Biblically, Nimrod, the great grandson of Noah, was a mighty hunter. At World Wide Words, etymologist Michael Quinion finds nimrod was used neutrally for hunters in the U.S. in the early 1900s. It then shifted to an insult for incompetent shooters in the 1930s, which may help explain why Bugs Bunny ribbed Elmer Fudd as a “poor little Nimrod.” By the 1980s, nimrod lost its hunting associations, and was used in student slang for a sad sack.

50 Collective Nouns for Groups of Animals

WLDavies/iStock
WLDavies/iStock

You know which animals move in packs, schools, and herds, but what about a wake, a business, or a flamboyance?

1. A CACKLE OF HYENAS

A group of hyenas on a rock.
JRLPhotographer/iStock

While clan is the much more accepted term, there's something very appropriate about cackle. And though their laughs and giggles sound entertaining, they're really how spotted hyenas express anger, frustration, and warnings to stay away.

2. A SHREWDNESS OF APES

Group of chimps in a tree.
guenterguni/iStock

This term has around since the late 1400s—at the time, shrewdness referred to the mischievous nature of apes, though knowing now how intelligent they are, the term still works.

3. A RAFT OF OTTERS

Otters floating in the water in a large group.
Dougall_Photography/iStock

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, many aquatic animals, such as ducks or puffins, also form rafts.

4. A MURDER OF CROWS

Silhouette of crows at night.
Renphoto/iStock

In the 15th century, crows were considered to be omens of death and messengers from the devil or evil powers.

5. A SCURRY OF SQUIRRELS

Squirrels lined up on a log.
Jef Wodniack/iStock

Scurries are fairly unusual since squirrels are not pack animals by nature, so the more commonly used dray refers to a nest consisting of a mother squirrel and her young.

6. A WAKE OF VULTURES

Buzzards and vultures coming over to a carcass.
Steve Allen Photo/iStock

For vultures, a wake specifically refers to a group feeding on a carcass. The less morbid terms kettle and committee are reserved for groups that are flying and resting in trees, respectively.

7. A BATTERY OF BARRACUDAS

A battery of barracuda swimming.
armiblue/iStock

Just one barracuda is intimidating, but a battery of them? Time to retreat!

8. A MUSTER OF STORKS

A muster of storks in a flower field.
Javier Conejero/iStock

A muster can also be used for groups of peacocks/peafowl (though an ostentation of peacocks is much more illustrative).

9. A WALK OF SNAILS

Group of snails.
Grotmarsel/iStock

Considering walk is one of the things a snail cannot do, this seems like an unusual choice. Perhaps the lesser-known (but still accepted) escargatoire would be more accurate.

10. A PARLIAMENT OF OWLS

A group of owls on a branch.
tariq sulemani/iStock

It's unclear when this phrase was invented, with examples dating to the late 19th century. But its origin is likely an allusion to Chaucer's poem "The Parliament of Fowls," alongside the use of parliament as a collective noun for rooks.

11. AN AMBUSH OF TIGERS

Three Bengal tigers walking along a path.
guenterguni/iStock

Since tigers tend to be solitary creatures, a grouping of them would certainly feel like an ambush.

12. A COTERIE OF PRAIRIE DOGS

Prairie dogs standing on a mound.
HenkBentlage/iStock

While full towns of prairie dogs are called colonies, the close-knit, individual family units are called coteries.

13. A MUTATION OF THRUSH

Thrush birds in a nest.
Stephen Barnes/iStock

An ancient and medieval belief that thrushes shed and regrew their legs each decade led to the collective term of a mutation of thrush.

14. A MEMORY OF ELEPHANTS

A herd of elephants with a couple of babies in front.
johan63/iStock

Sure, a herd of elephants is the more common collective, but a memory is also a recognized term. We're not sure why a pack of pachyderms didn't catch on though …

15. A SKULK OF FOXES

Four little red foxes in a grassy field.
taviphoto/iStock

This term likely came about because mother foxes raise their young while burrowed underground.

16. A SCOLD OF JAYS

Jays sitting on a ledge.
SHSPhotography/iStock

Jays also hang in bands and parties.

17. A COVEY OF QUAIL

Quail in the grass.
SteveByland/iStock

While they can also group as a flock or a bevy, a covey of quail sounds much more poetic.

18. A HOVER OF TROUT

Trout in the water.
emmgunn/iStock

Since trout tend to swim in groups near the bottom of a lake or river, they likely look like they're hovering over the bed of the waterway. Alternately, it may come from an old term for an overhanging rock where fish—like trout—can hide.

19. A BALE OF TURTLES

Group of turtles in the water.
dinozaver/iStock

Supposedly, a group of turtles who are cozy in their shells would look like a field of round or squarish hay bales.

20. A RHUMBA OF RATTLESNAKES

Couple of rattlesnakes.
User10095428_393/iStock

Because, perhaps under circumstances that didn't involve a large number of snakes, that many rattles in one place would make you want to dance.

21. A CHARM OF HUMMINGBIRDS

Hummingbirds flitting around a feeder.
Missing35mm/iStock

If just one hummingbird is charming, can you imagine how charming a whole group of them would be?

22. A BUSINESS OF FERRETS

A basket of ferrets.
JuergenBosse/iStock

The Book of Saint Albans gave ferrets the collective term busyness ("besynes"), which today has become "business."

23. A STUBBORNNESS OF RHINOCEROSES

Rhinoceroses drinking water.
CornelisNienaber_/iStock

They can collectively be called a crash of rhinos as well.

24. A PRICKLE OF PORCUPINES

Porcupines eating some food.
photomaru/iStock

Could this term be any more apt?

25. AN IMPLAUSIBILITY OF GNUS

Gnus and wildebeests jumping into the water.
ANDREYGUDKOV/iStock

Who knew?

26. AN UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS

Silhouette of ravens in a tree.
MRaust/iStock

Ravens aren't exactly friendly fowl. They will often gang up on their prey or animals that enter their space. And because of the impression that they are an ominous presence, an unkindness of ravens can also be called a conspiracy.

27. A HAREM OF SEALS

A large group of seals.
evenfh/iStock

Specifically, when you have a group of females with a dominant male, it's a harem. If it's just some breeding seals hanging out, it's a rookery.

28. A MOB OF KANGAROOS

Kangaroos in a field.
leelakajonkij/iStock

And just like in human mobs, there's usually a leader (a "boomer," or adult male) who is only in power for a short while before being challenged and defeated by a rival boomer.

29. A GAM OF WHALES

Group of whales swimming in the ocean.
solarseven/iStock

Gam is a possible derivative of the word "gammon," meaning talk intended to deceive. Considering scientists have only just recently begun thinking they could decipher whale calls, we'd say the gam's gammon is pretty effective.

30. A POD OF PELICANS

Pelicans swimming on the water.
hartmanc10/iStock

They can also be called a squadron.

31. A GENERATION OF VIPERS

Two vipers hiding in the leaves.
Mark Kostich/iStock

A group of snakes is generally a pit, nest, or den, but they're generally thought of as solitary creatures, so collective nouns for specific types of snakes are more fanciful. A "generation of vipers" likely originates from the King James translation of the Bible, in which Matthew 23:33 reads "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?"

32. A DESCENT OF WOODPECKERS

Three woodpeckers in a tree.
RT-Images/iStock

Woodpeckers are far more known for their wood-pecking style of foraging for food, but another method some have is to quickly dive-bomb anthills and termite mounds.

33. A RUN OF SALMON

Salmon swimming upstream.
sekarb/iStock

A salmon run isn't just the mass migration of salmon up the river—a run of salmon is also the name of a grouping of the fish.

34. A KALEIDOSCOPE OF BUTTERFLIES

One blue butterfly with a lot of orange butterflies.
borchee/iStock

Groups of butterflies can also be called flutters.

35. A WISDOM OF WOMBATS

Couple of wombats in a field.
yellowsarah/iStock

Wombats have large brains and are incredibly playful, which is often viewed as a sign of intelligence.

36. A ROUT OF WOLVES

Large pack of wolves.
Cloudtail_the_Snow_Leopard/iStock

While pack is definitely the better-known term today, a very old term for wolves is rout, a word that ultimately came from the Middle French for company.

37. A SHIVER OF SHARKS

Group of hammerhead sharks in the ocean.
Janos/iStock

The term shiver applies a bit more to nervous humans when they see a large group of sharks, which is perhaps why the term has caught on in recent years.

38. A SCOURGE OF MOSQUITOES

Mosquitos flying against a yellow light.
Nataba/iStock

They're more commonly called a swarm, but a scourge sounds just as accurate.

39. A SLEUTH OF BEARS

Four bears climbing a tree.
Chilkoot/iStock

This isn't a reference to any detective work bears may or may not do—it's derived from the Old English word for sloth, meaning slow (and sloth itself is sometimes used as a collective noun as well). 

40. A GAZE OF RACCOONS

Three raccoons in a tree hole.
stanley45/iStock

The males are called boars and the females sows.

41. A SIEGE OF HERONS

Herons standing in a field.
joesayhello/iStock

When herons pick a new lake or river to rest at, the fish there would certainly feel under siege.

42. A FLAMBOYANCE OF FLAMINGOS

Flamingos flying and standing in the water.
mantaphoto/iStock

Kudos to the creator of this perfect term.

43. A DESTRUCTION OF CATS

Black and white cats hanging out along a street.
lilagri/iStock

A destruction refers specifically to a group of wild or feral cats. A group of domesticated cats is a clowder.

44. A FEVER OF STINGRAYS

Stingrays swimming under the water.
EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER/iStock

At the very least, swimming with a fever of stingrays would surely cause your blood pressure to rise.

45. A SKEIN OF GEESE

Geese looking at the camera.
Melbye/iStock

A skein is used specifically when geese (or other wild birds) are flying, while the alliterative gaggle is the term for grounded or domestic geese.

46. A BUNCH OF WORMS

Pile of worms in the dirt.
Ben185/iStock

Not terribly creative, but when in doubt, just say "a bunch" of whatever.

47. AN EXALTATION OF LARKS

Larks flying across a field.
Supercaliphotolistic/iStock

An exaltation of larks also dates back to the 15th century Book of Saint Albans (which, because of its heraldry section, also happened to be the first book in England to be printed in color).

48. A FAMILY OF SARDINES

Sardines swimming in a large group.
Donyanedomam/iStock

There are more than a dozen fish who can be labeled "sardine" in the supermarket. So in this case, family means a large grouping, rather than parents and children.

49. A BARREL OF MONKEYS

A group of monkeys gathering around a banana.
Gilitukha/iStock

Not just a game—it's a real term. Monkeys can also congregate as a carload, troop, or tribe.

50. A DAZZLE OF ZEBRAS

Zebras grazing in a field.
Photoservice/iStock

They're more commonly called a herd, but a zeal or dazzle of zebras has such a nice ring to it.

How Coronavirus and 31 Other Infectious Diseases and Viruses Got Their Names

Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Rotavirus—from the Latin rota, for "wheel"—is named for the wheel-like appearance of its particles.
Dr_Microbe/iStock via Getty Images

As you may already know, the corona in coronavirus has no relation to a certain refreshing beer often served with a slice of lime. Corōna means “crown” in Latin—and Spanish and Italian, too—and virologists chose it in 1968 to describe the group of viruses characterized by crown-like spikes that protrude from their surfaces.

So how do other viruses and diseases get their names? Based on the infographic below, created by Adam Aleksic for his website, The Etymology Nerd, there isn’t just one way. Some, like the coronavirus, are named for how they look under a microscope. The rota in rotavirus, for example, which means “wheel” in Latin, reflects the virus’s wheel-like appearance when viewed beneath an electron microscope.

Others are named after the locations where they were discovered or studied. In 1947, scientists named a newly identified mosquito-borne virus after Uganda’s Zika Forest. In 1977, Yale researchers investigating a string of pediatric arthritis cases in the town of Lyme, Connecticut, started referring to the illness as “Lyme arthritis.” Later, the name was modified to “Lyme disease” when scientists realized patients were exhibiting other symptoms, too.

Still others are characterized by the symptoms they cause. People with tetanus—from the Greek tetanos, for “tension”—usually experience muscle stiffness, and the skin of yellow fever sufferers often takes on a yellow tint due to jaundice.

Find out the origins of malaria, measles, and more below. And follow The Etymology Nerd on Instagram for more fascinating etymological explanations.

etymology nerd infectious disease names infographic
Unsurprisingly, there's a lot of Latin in this infographic.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER