: a slow-witted or stupid person

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The irony of dunce lies in the fact that this synonym of dullard is derived from the name of one of the most brilliant thinkers of the Middle Ages, John Duns Scotus. So ingenious were the theological and metaphysical speculations of this thinker that he was given the name “the Subtle Doctor.” However, in the 16th century, his followers became a conservative element in English universities, and they tended to resist the new learning of humanism. As result, dunsman and the shortened form duns (later respelled as we have it today), became terms of scorn, meaning first “sophist” or “pedant” and gradually taking on the modern sense “slow-witted person.”

Examples of dunce in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web Experienced seamen were in high demand at the time, and I’d been left with a bunch of landlubbers, green hands, and shore dunces. Mike O’Brien, The New Yorker, 7 Nov. 2023 What dunce shot himself with a T-shirt cannon? Pat Myers, Washington Post, 8 Dec. 2022 Fred, meanwhile, is a mega-wealthy dunce who comes across as too helpless and hapless to grow into the ghostbusting leading man he’s supposed to become. Joshua Alston, Variety, 11 Jan. 2023 Anyway, bullying is bad, but dunce caps removed from their original context are good. Vulture, 29 Apr. 2022 Most adamant in their stances are permabulls and permabears who cherry-pick the latest economic indicators to create the illusion that only a dunce could possibly disagree with them. Martin Fridson, Forbes, 16 May 2022 Ermengarde, the school dunce, Lottie, the school crybaby, and Becky, the scullery maid, quickly find a defender, surrogate mother, and friend in Sara. Sarah Schutte, National Review, 13 Mar. 2022 In my view, the biggest mistake scientists make is to claim that this is all somehow simple and therefore to imply that anyone who doesn't get it is a dunce. Naomi Oreskes, Scientific American, 21 June 2021 Even mild-mannered GOP politicos and writers call Uncle Joe a phony, a liar, a dunce, a socialist: Our turn. Keith C. Burris, Star Tribune, 14 Apr. 2021

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'dunce.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


John Duns Scotus, whose once accepted writings were ridiculed in the 16th century

First Known Use

1567, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of dunce was in 1567

Dictionary Entries Near dunce

Cite this Entry

“Dunce.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dunce. Accessed 30 May. 2024.

Kids Definition


: a mentally dull or stupid person

an altered form of earlier duns, from the name John Duns Scotus 1266?–1308 a Scottish religious teacher whose writings came to be ridiculed in the 16th century

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