Word for Wednesday: Nincompoop

blog home

Last week, we ran a poll asking you which word you wanted to see featured in this week’s blog. The results were unequivocal and so, the word you’ve chosen for this week’s Word for Wednesday is one whose origin is shrouded in ambiguity… Nincompoop.


The Norfolk-born poet laureate Thomas Shadwell penned our first recorded use of this word in 1673. We can assume that by this time it was already present in spoken word.

Interestingly, the light-hearted pejorative ‘ninny’ (which we might assume to be a shortening of ‘nincompoop’) predates it in the antiquated term ‘ninny hammer’. Might this reveal nincompoop as an invented embellishment? Regardless, nincompoop seems to perfectly encapsulate foolishness or incompetence.

The tri-syllabic structure of the word nincompoop has perhaps lead to a public-domain myth that you might already be aware of…

Many people maintain that nincompoop comes from the Latin phrase ‘non compos mentis’ meaning simply, ‘not sound of mind’, a phrase commonly used in criminal law when the defendant claims insanity. While this would undoubtedly put etymologists’ minds at rest, the histories of words are rarely so simple – and generally, this theory is rejected due to the abundant variations that lack second ‘n’: nicompoop, nickompoop, nickumpoop.

A third theory draws upon a biblical character by the name of Nicodemus, an inquisitive and generous creature afflicted with naivety. Apparently this led to the archaic French slang for fool, ‘Nicholas’. Although this is unrelated to the origin of the name Nicholas (which comes from the Greek ‘Nikolaos’ in case there are any Nicholas’s feeling affronted out there!)

As a lifelong fan of nonsense words, and a bit of a nincompoop myself, I’d rather believe that was improvised for want of a better word in an ancestor’s time of need!

Which would you rather believe?

Hugh MacDermott

26 Feb 2014
blog home

"Spellzone is incredibly easy to access and caters for a wide range of abilities, which means you can use it throughout the school at a range of levels, making it fantastic value for money as a learning resource."

Anne Shisler, SENCO, City of London School for Girls