Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Dumb And Stupid


Language is dynamic and keeps changing with time. One can then imagine how many changes take place in a popular language like English that is spoken in almost all major countries of the world. If we compare old English to the modern day English, we would understand the point at hand. Pick up a book written in Old English and one may not be able to comprehend what the writer exactly meant to say, as many of the words would have changed in usage from then to now. Who would have thought that nice used to mean silly, foolish and simple and was hardly a term of flattery that we consider it today. Silly was used to mean worthy or blessed but now we use it to mean foolish.

English is spoken in many parts of the world and it takes on nuances from the different languages it encounters and the slang of the people who use it. A point in question is how the words dumb and stupid have changed over time.

The journey from “How dumb?” to “How Dumb!”

Dumb used to almost exclusively mean the inability of a person to speak because of a congenital deafness. Some people were born deaf, dumb or blind.  Animals were also called dumb animals because by nature they could not speak. As an offshoot, the word dumb also was used in related usage like being temporarily unable or unwilling to speak as in “He was rooted to the spot and became dumb when he was wrongly accused of robbery”. Dumb also expressed speechlessness “She was struck dumb at the terrible sight in front of her”. The game Dumb Charades is played without speaking a word.

As days passed, the words Deaf and Dumb became politically incorrect and people afflicted with such a condition came to be called Mute or Speech and Hearing impaired.

How then, one wonders, did dumb come to be synonymous with stupid?  This can be traced back to the influence of German where dumm means stupid. It picked up in US in informally spoken English to call someone dumb if he behaved in a stupid manner or did something silly. Now hardly anyone uses the word dumb to mean the inability of a person to speak. It almost always means stupid – like in, “How can you be so dumb?”  or “That was a really dumb thing to do.”

Is there a difference between dumb and stupid?

In colloquial use there does not seem to be much difference between dumb and stupid. Dumb is used in a more informal setting. If your friend did something really foolish and without thinking, you would more likely call him dumb than stupid.

If one had to examine further and try to draw a fine line between the two, then one could say a person was dumb when because of a diminished intellectual capacity, he did something because he did not know any better. It could be because he did not know that an action of his could result in something harmful or damaging.

A stupid person is one who knows better but goes right ahead and does or repeats a thing anyway. He should have known better, but he doesn’t learn from his first experience. The first mistake could have been a dumb one that he committed because he hadn’t realised the consequences but to keep repeating it even after knowing better can be called downright stupid. Take for example a person who wants to make tomato puree and runs a blender without the cap screwed on. He has a kitchen sprayed with tomato paste. That is a really dumb thing to do. However, if after cleaning up the holy mess, he repeats the same thing again, he is really stupid.

So, which would you rather be, dumb or stupid?

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