Dunce cap

A young boy wearing a dunce cap in class, from a staged photo c.1906

A dunce cap, also variously known as a dunce hat, dunce's cap, or dunce's hat, is a pointed hat. In popular culture, it is typically made of paper and often marked with a D or the word "dunce", and given to schoolchildren to wear as punishment by public humiliation for misbehavior and, as the name implies, stupidity. Frequently the 'dunce' was made to stand in the corner, facing the wall as the result of some bad behaviour, usually rudeness or mean threatening actions. Depending on the teacher, they might have to stand for as long as half an hour and throwers of spitballs or pulling on a girl's hair could prompt the measure. Class clowns were frequently admonished with the dunce cap. Only in some locations was it used against those who failed during studies – it usually was more a measure to teach manners and how to be a responsible individual. In modern society dunce caps are extremely rare, and are frowned upon.

A very similar practice on the European continent was a paper headdress known as donkey's ears, as a symbol of 'asinine' stupidity.



The word "dunce" comes from the name of John Duns Scotus, a Scholastic whose followers were called "duns" or "dunsmen". Duns Scotus wrote treatises on grammar, logic, and metaphysics which were widely used as textbooks in the medieval British universities. As the English Renaissance began and the new learning superseded Duns Scotus' theories, his adherents obstinately refused to acquiesce. The word "dunce" then began to be used by humanists to ridicule the Scholastics, gradually acquiring its modern meaning.

Duns Scotus

King Philip IV of France wanted to tax the church in order to finance his war with England, but Pope Boniface VIII threatened to excommunicate him instead. Duns Scotus supported the pope and was banished from France, later taking up a university professorship in Germany. Those who disagreed with Scotus' teachings started referring to his supporters by the word 'dunce', which meant 'stupid or dull witted'. His books on theology, philosophy, and logic were university textbooks. His followers were later challenged by their opponents about what was perceived as a system of hair-splitting and distinctions; their obstin over an increasing array of challenges posed first by humanists and then by reformers led to the term "dunses" to denote fools in general.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition), "dunce cap" didn't enter the English language until after the term "dunce" was so transformed. John Ford's 1624 play The Sun's Darling is the first recorded mention of the related term "dunce table," a table provided for duller or poorer students; "dunce cap" appears first in the 1840 novel The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

See also


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • dunce cap — n. a cone shaped hat that children slow at learning were formerly forced to wear in school …   English World dictionary

  • dunce cap — noun a cone shaped paper hat formerly placed on the head of slow or lazy pupils • Syn: ↑dunce s cap, ↑fool s cap • Hypernyms: ↑hat, ↑chapeau, ↑lid * * * noun or …   Useful english dictionary

  • dunce cap — dunce′ (or dunce′ s) cap n. a tall cone shaped hat formerly worn by slow or lazy students as a punishment Also called fool s cap Etymology: 1830–40 …   From formal English to slang

  • dunce cap — noun Date: 1840 a conical cap formerly used as a punishment for slow learners at school called also dunce s cap …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • dunce cap — a tall, cone shaped hat formerly worn by slow or lazy students as a punishment in school. Also, dunce s cap. Also called fool s cap. [1830 40] * * * …   Universalium

  • dunce cap — noun a) A conical hat one is forced to wear to indicate he is a dunce. b) The topological space obtained by identifying the sides comprising the boundary of a triangle, two sides with consistent orientation and the third with the …   Wiktionary

  • dunce cap — tall conical hat once worn by poor or lazy students as punishment …   English contemporary dictionary

  • dunce's cap — noun a cone shaped paper hat formerly placed on the head of slow or lazy pupils • Syn: ↑dunce cap, ↑fool s cap • Hypernyms: ↑hat, ↑chapeau, ↑lid * * * noun see dunce cap * * * …   Useful english dictionary

  • Dunce hat (topology) — For the item of clothing designed to be humiliating, now rarely used, see dunce cap. To get a dunce hat, take a solid triangle and successively glue together all three sides with the indicated orientation. In topology, the dunce hat is a compact… …   Wikipedia

  • Dunce — A dunce is a person incapable of learning. The word is derived from the name of the great Scholastic theologian and philosopher John Duns Scotus, also referred to as Doctor Subtillis, or Subtle Doctor , whose works on logic, theology and… …   Wikipedia

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