SYNDICATED COLUMN: America is one of the Few Cultures with Insults for Smart People

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There was controversy about it, but the Inuit famously and really do have at least 50 words for snow. The Scots have 241!

The Sami people of northern Scandinavia and Russia use more than 1000 words for reindeer.

Sanskrit, the language of the Kama Sutra, offers 267 words for love.

Languages tend to evolve to reflect the cultural and practical priorities of the societies that speak them.

This linguistic truism came to mind recently when, as part of research for one of my cartoons, I turned to Google Translate in search of a French translation for the English word “geek.” There wasn’t one. Nor in Spanish. All the Romance languages came up short; Google suggested “disadattato” in Italian, but that’s different — it means “misfit,” or “a person who is poorly adapted to a situation or environment.”

A “geek” — “a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked,” according to Merriam-Webster — is decidedly distinct from a misfit.

You can tell a lot about a culture from its language. I had stumbled across a revealing peculiarity about American English: we insult people for being intelligent.

That’s not true about most of the rest of the world.

At least among Western cultures and compared to many others, we Americans enjoy the dubious distinction of having a high degree of linguistic diversity when it comes to mocking the smart and the educated (who, I can attest as the expellee-cum-graduate of an Ivy League school, are not always the same).

Bookworm. Brain. Brainiac. Dork. Dweeb. Egghead. Freak. Grind. Grub. Longhair. Nerd. Poindexter.Pointy-headed. Smarty-pants. Techie.

            Esoterically, doubledome.

You have to journey far away from the areas dominated by the Indo-European language group in order to find direct equivalents of words like “nerd.” On the other hand, languages like French are extremely rich in insults for stupid people: “bête comme ses pieds,” or “dumb as hell,” literally means “as stupid as his/her feet.” Apparently this derives from the fact that feet are the body part furthest away from your brain. More zoologically, “blaireau” (badger) refers to an idiot.

When you think about it — which, being American, we rarely do — it should come as little surprise to realize that few insults sting the French more effectively than being called stupid. France, after all, is a country with a 385-year-old parliamentary body composed of academics and other notables who rule on the usages, vocabulary and grammar of the national language, the Academie Française, and where one of the most popular television programs in history featured intellectual authors smoking like chimneys as they ruminated over the cultural and political controversies of the day, “Apostrophes.” After food and wine, the French worship the life of the mind.

The United States, on the other hand, elected Donald “Celebrity Apprentice” Trump over Hillary “I Have a 12-Point Plan” Clinton.

Bush over Gore.

Ike over Adlai. Twice.

As CUNY Professor Deborah M. De Simone notes in her essay discussing Richard Hofstadter’s classic Pulitzer-winning book Anti-intellectualism in American Life, the 2000 Democratic nominee’s IQ proved divisive: “Al Gore was both mocked and applauded for the depth and manner of his oratory while George W. Bush was both ridiculed and embraced for his unsophisticated vocabulary.” A reporter assigned to cover Gore’s campaign complained about getting stuck with “the government nerd.”

Bush wasn’t really stupid. The point is that he pretended to be, and rather convincingly. After losing an election in Texas, young Dubya had sworn, Scarlett O’Hara-like, never to get outcountrified again. Bush won reelection in 2004, in part because voters infamously told pollsters they’d rather drink a beer with him than with the more intellectual “French-looking” John Kerry.” (Talk about dumb! Bush was a teetotaler.)

Trump won the beer poll question during the 2016 presidential campaign. Like Bush, he doesn’t drink.

Europeans make fun of dumb people.

Americans elect them to high office.

Despite the rise of Silicon Valley and its technoelites, the Revenge of the Nerds in the South Bay has managed to line stock portfolios without moving the needle on America’s cultural values. Jocks still rule high schools that spend millions on new football stadiums while starving the arts. Faced with foreign policy crises, even “liberal” Congressmen reflexively endorse bombing over diplomacy in order to look “tough.” Scientific geniuses like the late Stephen Hawking are framed as cultural curiosities to marvel over rather than heroes to be emulated as are football players, rappers and movie stars (specifically buff men who act in action movies).

One can reasonably argue over which country, the United States or France, is superior in various respects. But how, as we transition to an information-based economy, can we doubt that elevating intelligence as a sociocultural ideal is, well, smarter than elevating buffoons?

Maybe it’s time to take a cue from our proudly pro-intelligence and pro-education cultural cousins across the Atlantic. Point at President Trump and other public figures whenever they say anything that sounds less than intelligent, and laugh at them. Not only for being racist, rude or insensitive — but just for being stupid.

Dumber even than their feet.

(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the editorial cartoonist and columnist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)

14 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: America is one of the Few Cultures with Insults for Smart People

  1. “After food and wine, the French worship the life of the mind.” I could list a few other things the French like, but I don’t want the NSA investigating me.

    Seriously, how much of this is just Americentrism? There’s always been this notion that foreigners do the things they do because they have some sort of mystical insight that we Yanks have – whether it’s Euro-socialism or Eastern mysticism, if people who talk funny do it, well, there MUST be something to it.

      • URRITE ! And just maybe our resident thaumaturge is correct in that half the people in the US have IQs of 50…. 😉

        Henri

      • There is a huge boom in autism right now because inattentive mothers and competitive dads want an explanation for why their dumb-ass kids can’t compete academically, so they throw money into the happy laps of shrinks . . . to get back diagnoses that help explain away the deficiencies of their junior morons. I don’t give a [bleep] what these crackerjack whack jobs tell you – yer kid is NOT autistic. He’s just stupid. Or lazy. Or both.

        Denis Leary

      • «Henri, at least give me some credit for not going with the “French people like Jerry Lewis” gag, mmkay?» My most abject apologies, «Fleming Balzac» ; I myself lacked the wherewithal to understand that «[t]here’s always been this notion that foreigners do the things they do because they have some sort of mystical insight that we Yanks have [i e, lack] – whether it’s Euro-socialism or Eastern mysticism, if people who talk funny do it, well, there MUST be something to it» was a reference to a putative appreciation on the part of the French for Mr Levitch….

        But let me assuage your worries ; the propensity of the chattering classes to think that people who talk funny possess some mystical insight is hardly unique to your country. Here in Sweden they seem to think that the navel of the universe is located in that Shining City on a Hill of yours (even if they don’t particularly care for Mr Trump) and are happy to, e g, spend 25 thousand million kroner to purchase an outdated anti-missile system which demonstrably doesn’t work and participate in your military adventures abroad in order to get and remain in your good graces. Lack of the ability to think clearly seems to be a universal….

        Henri

    • FlemingBalzac

      Say you study martial arts, do you go to the Asian instructor, the White instructor, the Black instructor or the Hispanic instructor? Same style, same rankings.
      Most Mysticism is based on Asian ideas. People travel to India to sit at the feet of their guru. People travel to temples in China and Japan to become enlightened.
      Why don’t people travel to Africa? Or Mexico? Carlos Casteneda pointed the way to Mexican indian mysticism.
      You look at a Black guy and think large penis, you look at an Asian and think small. Most likely due to porn and mythology.
      In the US we prefer our Black actors to be light skinned, and just now are we seeing Black/White dating on tv and in film. Except for an old Fox Frankie Faison tv show.
      European tv has Blacks and Arabs dating whites. I see more head scarves on British/French/Australian tv and film than in US.
      Screw that we even NEED TO HAVE FOREIGN FILM AND TV EITHER DUBBED OR REMADE! That includes shows like Broadchurch, Low winter sun and The office.
      I doubt people can even read the subtitles.
      I watch European tv and most of these people speak their native tongue, English and a smattering of other languages.
      Most Americans can’t even master English. High school graduates can barely read? A EULA is like Finnegan’s wake to them.
      Before I end rant, Ted Rall stated, most likely on Bill Maher but maybe in a toon, that US doesn’t really like change in it’s politicians. That’s why we vote for similar politicians.
      Might be nice to see him apply his own statement to the Trump election. Intellectual consistency and all.

      • Carlos Casteneda was full of shit. You know that, right?

        The point I’m going for is that the eastern mysticism stuff is just as much gobbledygook as the crap troweled out by Father O’Malley at the local church. But because it’s practiced by people who talk and dress “foreign” it gains an unwarranted credibility among Americans and westerners in general.

        The same can be said for politics. “Oooh! In that country where they talk all funny they have free healthcare and welfare! They must have some greater wisdom so let’s be like them”.

        Henri, at least give me some credit for not going with the “French people like Jerry Lewis” gag, mmkay?

  2. First of all NADER never was elected. Ross Perot, being MKULTRA’d ALMOST got elected. And he was right.

    How many know the Shaker Heights story? Blacks hire a Black scientist to study why their children are failing. He uncovers the truth and gets attacked for it.

    The book, ”Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb: A Study of Academic Disengagement” (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates), is by John U. Ogbu, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a well-known figure in the field of student achievement for more than three decades. Indeed, it was Mr. Ogbu’s research that popularized the phrase ”acting white” in the mid-1980’s to help explain why black students might disdain behaviors associated with high achievement, like speaking standard grammatical English.

    Now Mr. Ogbu is back, arguing with renewed fervor that his most recent research shows that African-Americans’ own cultural attitudes are a serious problem that is too often neglected.

    ”No matter how you reform schools, it’s not going to solve the problem,” he said in an interview. ”There are two parts of the problem, society and schools on one hand and the black community on the other hand.”

    Continue reading the main story
    Professor Ogbu’s latest conclusions are highlighted in a study of blacks in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent Cleveland suburb whose school district is equally divided between blacks and whites. As in many racially integrated school districts, the black students have lagged behind whites in grade-point averages, test scores and placement in high-level classes. Professor Ogbu was invited by black parents in 1997 to examine the district’s 5,000 students to figure out why.

    ”What amazed me is that these kids who come from homes of doctors and lawyers are not thinking like their parents; they don’t know how their parents made it,” Professor Ogbu said in an interview. ”They are looking at rappers in ghettos as their role models, they are looking at entertainers. The parents work two jobs, three jobs, to give their children everything, but they are not guiding their children.”

    For example, he said that middle-class black parents in general spent no more time on homework or tracking their children’s schooling than poor white parents. And he said that while black students talked in detail about what efforts were needed to get an A and about their desire to achieve, too many nonetheless failed to put forth that effort.

    Those kinds of attitudes reflect a long history of adapting to oppression and stymied opportunities, said Professor Ogbu, a Nigerian immigrant who has written that involuntary black immigrants behave like low-status minorities in other societies.

    Not surprisingly, he said, the parents were disappointed when he turned the spotlight on them as well as the schools. Peggy Caldwell, a spokeswoman for the Shaker Heights City School District, said that minority families cared deeply about their children’s academic achievement and the district was working with education experts to reduce the racial achievement gap. She noted that while Professor Ogbu called most of the black families in the district middle class, 10 to 12 percent live in poverty.

    Also not surprisingly, many researchers take issue with some of Professor Ogbu’s latest findings.

  3. My French cousin says that he “knows from experience” that smart kids don’t fair well on French playgrounds. He says that the equivalent of nerd is “intello” and the equivalent of geek is “autiste”. But he says you’re right that jocks don’t exist in France.

  4. «This linguistic truism came to mind recently when, as part of research for one of my cartoons, I turned to Google Translate in search of a French translation for the English word “geek.” There wasn’t one.» Au contraire, cher Ted, the current French term for «geek» is «geek, imported from the English….

    «At least among Western cultures and compared to many others, we Americans enjoy the dubious distinction of having a high degree of linguistic diversity when it comes to mocking the smart and the educated» Here you ignore the fact that your fellow countrymen also exhibit a pronounced creativity when it comes to describing the intellectually less well-equipped : Urban Thesaurus lists more than a 1000 synonyms for stupid….

    Henri

  5. Well-educated people have a tendency to oppose those in power. (Note the number of scholars in the First Continental Congress) In Antebellum times, it was illegal to teach a slave to read.

    Today, well-educated people can understand topics like global warming, pollution and overpopulation. This does not sit well with those in power, who stand to gain by ignoring those problems. Connect the dots.

    And We Duh Sheeple go right along with it, happily leading ourselves to the slaughter. Check out viewing audience numbers for a Jeopardy Championship vs. The Stupor Bowl and you’ll have another couple of dots to connect.

    Teh Holey Babble comes out against thinking for yourself – for much the same reason. Instead, you should just believe what you’re told. I can’t find the verse I’m looking for, but here are a couple related:

    1 Corinthians 3:18 – Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise.

    Proverbs 3:5
    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

    It used to be easy to google the dumber bible verses, but they’ve been suppressed in the search results by those who want to paint a different picture of God’s Weird – wonder who that could be? Follow the money and thine eyes may be opened unto the truth of The Lard.

    “You are my flock, and I shall fleece you”

    • @CH

      “In Antebellum times, it was illegal to teach a slave to read.”

      I was about to make the same remark as above. And follow it with the remark below:

      Those who choose to not read make slaves of themselves voluntarily.

    • Heinrich Heine:

      “in dark ages people are best guided by religion, as in a pitch black night a blind man is the best guide…When daylight comes, however, it is foolish to use blind old men as guides.”

      “If your right eye offends you, pluck it out / If your right arm offends you, cut it off / And if your reason offends you, become a Catholic.”

      “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.”

      From Jack Huberman’s “The Quotable Atheist”

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