Sometimes, when I wake up abruptly, I can still hear part of the dream I was just having. And so it was, this morning, when I heard my mother’s voice saying, “What a dunderhead!”
According to the good folks at Merriam-Webster, the definition of this word is exactly what I expected it to be.
dunderhead (noun) dun·der·head pronounced:ˈdən-dər-ˌhed : dunce, blockhead
I hadn’t thought about the term in decades, and it made me smile. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone but my mother utter it. It never failed to make me giggle as a child. I always assumed that she heard it at the knee of her Danish father, whom she idolized. He was a merchant marine in World War II, and I suspect he felt the need to censor his sailor’s speech around his daughter.
I feel I should clarify. My mother never called me a dunderhead, not even in this particular dream. She reserved the term for bad drivers, petty criminals, and select politicians. (Nixon springs to mind.) It’s safe to say that I did not get my potty mouth from her.
Now that dunderhead has come roaring back into my mind, I became curious about its etymology. The Online Etymology Dictionary, one of my very favorite resources, had this to say:
dunderhead (n.) "dunce, numbskull," 1620s, from head (n.); the first element is obscure; perhaps from Middle Dutch doner, donder "to thunder" (compare blunderbuss). Dunder also was a native dialectal variant of thunder. In the same sense were dunder-whelp (1620s); dunderpate (1754); dunderpoll (1801).
So it didn’t originate in Denmark. Blast. But I remain unphased, because Danish and Dutch are both Germanic languages, and I suspect the pronunciation, if not the comprehension, of each didn’t pose a challenge to the residents in those two lands, which are only about 500 miles apart.
And let’s face it. The Danes had a tendency to get around. Heaven knows my grandfather did. It’s a Viking thing.
Perhaps more intriguing than the word’s origins is its popularity. The Online Etymology Dictionary also provides this handy graph which shows when this word was trending throughout the centuries. This graph made me blink. A lot of the time when I look at these graphs, the word in question gets a sharp spike around the time of its origins, and then slowly fades into obscurity over time. Not dunderhead.
Dunderhead rose in popularity to what by all rights should have been its peak in 1829. Then it drops precipitously, but still manages to chug along until around the 1960’s, about the time that I was giggling about it. Then it starts to fade away toward its well-deserved retirement. But no! Around 2011, it not only returns to its 1829 popularity, but has sustained a meteoric rise ever since. Three cheers for dunderhead!
But what accounts for this extreme rejuvenation? It wasn’t hard to find out. In 2009, a children’s book came out entitled The Dunderheads, by Paul Fleischman. It must be very popular, because it has gone through 17 editions. And in 2012, a sequel came out entitled The Dunderheads Behind Bars.
Goodreads raves about both of these titles. I hope someone donates them to my little free library, because I’m dying to share them. I’ve added them to my library’s Amazon Wishlist, for what it’s worth.
A lazy Amazon search reveals that, since then, a few other authors have used dunderhead in book titles, and it has also made its way into the music world. There’s even a band by that name, and if you love bluegrass as much as I do, you’ll enjoy them.
So, there you have it. Hopefully dunderhead will soldier on in its various forms for generations to come. For me, its very mention makes me feel a connection to hundreds of years of ancestors, all blustering about one thing or another, managing to be opinionated without being too offensive. That resonates with me.
One thing is for sure: I got my love of words from my mother. She also liked to say, “Son of a seacook!” I’m sure that came from her father as well. Then she came across the phrase “gird your loins” in some novel or other, and found it hilarious enough to add it to her lexicon. She did enjoy a pithy turn of phrase.
Thanks, Ma. You taught me that words should be allowed to come out and play. I’d like to think you would have enjoyed my blog.
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