Blog Post

The ironically brilliant tale of the dunce cap

Greg, an old high school friend of mine, posted a silly photo on Instagram the other day in which he had a white mailing envelope perched on his head. I commented that it looked like a dunce cap and it suddenly occurred to me that very few people refer to dunce caps anymore (and they certainly aren’t politically correct forms of punishment). I wondered if the younger generation, by which I mean just about everybody else but me, even knows what one is.

dunce 2 wiki
(Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Ironically, I wanted to learn more about dunce caps and, as always, I am sharing that journey of knowledge with you. I hope you realize how lucky you are.

What is a dunce cap?

The caps themselves were typically made from rolling paper into a cone and writing a “D” or the word “dunce” on the paper to indicate to onlookers that the person wearing the cap had done something remarkably stupid. They are called a dunce cap, dunce’s cap, dunce hat or dunce’s hat.

Turns out, the origin of dunce caps is also filled with irony. Atlas Obscura says, “The dunce cap has long been a visual symbol of idiocy and punishment, but was once seen as something closer to a wizard’s hat. While today we understand the goofy-looking cone hat as denoting some kind of intellectual failing, it actually began as a symbol of respected scholars.”

John Duns Scotus

The name comes from a Scottish man named John Duns Scotus (yes, that is the abbreviation for Supreme Court of the United States but in this case is denotes “Scotia” for Scotland). The middle name “Duns” comes from the village where he was born and came to be pronounced “dunce.”

John Duns Scotus was a Franciscan philosopher-theologian who was ordained in 1291 to wear “the habit of the Friars Minor at Dumfries,” according to Franciscanmedia.org. He was beautified by Pope John Paul II in 1993.

This dude was a thinker of thoughts much too deep for me to fathom on all kinds of topics, including the Immaculate Conception. So how did his name became a synonym for stupidity?

How “dunce” came to mean “stupid”

Museum_of_Lincolnshire_Life,_Lincoln,_England_-_DSCF1726 Rept0n1x wiki
A dunce cap in the Museum of Lincolnshire Life, in Lincoln,England (Rept0n1x via Wikimedia Commons)

Atlas Obscura says, “For some reason, Scotus was also a proponent of the use of pointy hats. It has been said that he was inspired by the use of such hats by wizards, and also conversely that it was Scotus’ love of the headgear that inspired the popular image of wizards wearing conical caps. Whichever version is true, they were both meant to denote wise men.” Scotus apparently believed the conical shape would act as some metaphysical funnel of knowledge and wisdom. The hats remained a symbol of knowledge in his lifetime (he died in 1308) but that changed in the 1500s when “the popular thought among church scholars began to turn against the Dunsmen,” Atlas Obscura said. At that point the “Dunsmen” or “Duns” were thought to be woefully out-of-date in their thinking, and thus stupid.

And that’s the story of how pointy hats came to be worn by stupid people. Drawings appeared in books in the early 1800s (see below). The first written reference to dunce caps was in the 1833 travel book, “America, and the Americans,” by James Boardman.

Contrast_a_child_that’s_good_with_one_who_hates_his_book_and_school
The good student and “bad” student, shown with dunce’s cap and jackass ears, from “The Affectionate Parent’s Gift,” 1828. (https://archive.org/stream/affectionatepare01horsiala#page/n191/mode/1up)

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