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shameless pleading

Dunderhead

Dazed and confused.

Dear Word Detective: Insults are a curious backwater of the English language. I recently heard someone referred to as a “dunderhead.” The internet tells me that “dunder” refers to yeast in some fashion, apparently a byproduct of the making of rum. But calling someone a “yeasthead” doesn’t make much sense. How did this pejorative come about? — Dave Anderson

Oh that internet, what a kidder! Seriously, if the internet were a person, it would be the life of the party, with all sorts of great jokes, funny film clips and fascinating stories to tell. Either that or it would be some weird guy who not only knows who killed JFK but where they parked their time machine and what they’ve been doing with our precious bodily fluids ever since. In truth, of course, the net is both, and every computer sold really ought to come with the motto “Cum Grano Salis” (“With a grain of salt”) embossed above the screen.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the story the net told you about the connection between “dunderhead” and yeast is almost certainly not true. But in this case, it’s not really the net’s fault. A Google search for “dunderhead yeast” produces more than 16,000 hits, many of which refer back to an edition of Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable from the 1890s, which is now in the public domain and available online. The “Brewer” who wrote the book was not a rum-maker, but Reverend E. Cobham Brewer of Nottinghamshire, England, the author of several Victorian reference works. While subsequent editions of his work (the most recent being Brewer’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable from 2009) are reliable, Reverend Brewer’s original work, though a fascinating read, contained some word and phrase origins that, shall we say, lacked solid evidence in their favor. “Dunderhead” is one such entry, and thanks to the internet, it has traveled far and wide.

Rev. Brewer’s entry for “dunderhead” defines the term as “a blockhead or, rather, a muddle-headed person.” So far so good. But then he adds, “Dunder is the lee or dregs of wine, etc.; more correctly, the overflow of fermented liquors (yeast),” and he traces the word to the Spanish “redundar, to overflow or froth over.” But while “dunder” is indeed a term meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “The lees or dregs of cane-juice, used in the West Indies in the fermentation of rum,” and he is correct that this “dunder” comes from “redundar,” this is not the “dunder” we are looking for. (In Rev. Brewer’s defense, consumption of enough rum can certainly make one a “dunderhead,” so his guess was quite reasonable.)

The origin of the “dunder” in “dunderhead,” which first appeared in print (as far as we know) in 1630 (meaning, as the OED delightfully puts it, “a ponderously stupid person”) is, strictly speaking, uncertain. But the most likely source is the Scots verb “dunner,” meaning “to resound with a loud and reverberating noise,” especially “to fall with a loud sound.” This “dunner,” in turn, has been traced to the Old Norse “duna,” meaning “to thunder,” which in turn goes back to the Germanic root “dun,” which also gave us our English “din” for a loud noise.

The connection between a loud noise and dim, stupid behavior is not immediately apparent, but a related Scots word gives an important clue. The Scots verb “donner” means “to stun with a blow or loud noise” (OED), and the related adjective “donnered” means “stunned or stupefied,” as if by a blow. This certainly puts us in the neighborhood of “dunderhead,” one who behaves as if stunned by a blow.

There is an interesting sidelight to this evolution of “dunderhead.” Our modern English word “blunderbuss,” which appeared in the 17th century meaning an early (and atrociously inaccurate) gun with a very large bore, was an adaptation of the Dutch term “donderbus” (“donder,” thunder, plus “bus,” firearm (originally meaning “box or tube”)). When “donderbus” was adopted into English, the “donder,” being unfamiliar to English-speakers, was modified to “blunder,” probably at least in part because the gun’s effects were crude and unpredictable. This association between “donner” or “donder” and “blunder” may also have played a role in the formation of “dunderhead,” since someone severely stupefied would likely be very clumsy as well. Interestingly, “blunderbuss” was used in the late 17th century to mean “a stupid, blundering person” (“Not such a hair-brain’d Blunderbuss as you,” 1692).

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