The Oxford University Press blog has a weekly etymology series. This week Anatoly Liberman researches the origin of the word “simpleton” and finds it’s not so simple.
Simpleton is an irritating word. At first sight, its origin contains no secrets: simple + ton. And that may be all there is to it despite the obscurity of -ton. We find this explanation in the OED and in the dictionaries dependent on it. The word surfaced in the middle of the seventeenth century and must have been a facetious coinage, but we are not sure in what milieu it turned up, and quite often the etymologists’ biggest trouble is their ignorance of the initial environment of a new term. The earliest attestation sometimes misleads the researcher, because a popular word need not have been first recorded in its “cradle.” If we knew more about the center of dissemination of hobo, kibosh, and their likes, we might be able to offer truly persuasive hypotheses of their origin and discard others as untenable. Those who have read my posts on chestnut, masher, and dude will easily recognize the problem. Who were the wits responsible for launching simpleton, and why did it catch on? Samuel Johnson (1775) offered a piece of relevant information in that he called simpleton a low word. He often used this label and apparently knew what he was saying. We can assume that in his days simpleton was slang, cant (which is much worse than slang despite the horror stories told about slang at that time), or a dialectal word not fit for polite use. In 1882 the first edition of Skeat’s English etymological dictionary was published. His opinion on simpleton, as it appeared there, never changed. According to Skeat, simpleton is simple-t-on, with a double French suffix, from Old French simplet “a simple person” (-on, without the preceding diminutive suffix t, can be seen in Spanish simplón “simpleton,” and another word with a double suffix is musketoon, that is, musk-et-oon; –oon, as in spittoon, saloon, etc.). Our “thick” dictionaries are divided in their judgment: most follow the OED, while a few side with Skeat. Other derivations ofsimpleton do not explain –ton and are not worth mentioning—except perhaps one. Abram Smythe Palmer, the author of a popular book on folk etymology, quoted the following lines from a satirical 1772 poem: “This fashion, who does e’er pursue,/ I think a simple-tony;/ For he’s a fool, say what you will,/ Who is a macaroni.” Tony, it appears, was not a rare name for “any person.” Simpleton, Smythe Palmer suggested, was short for Simple–tony, as babe is short for baby. It did not occur to him that simple-tony could have been a witty alternation of simpleton. Skeat did not comment on this idea, but he disliked complex etymologies when an easy one solved the riddle (though his etymology is not particularly easy). …in 1883 F. C. Birkbeck Terry, another active contributor to Notes and Queries, expressed his hope that “[t]he compilers to the great English dictionary, of which we shall soon have the first instalment [sic], will no doubt be able to supply examples of the use of the word antecedent to 1720.” He was right. The first installment appeared in 1884, and a citation with an earlier date was supplied. But the word’s origin proved to be less simple than one could expect or wish for.
The first picture will remind you of Simple Simon, that proto-simpleton of English folklore and a close relative of Simple Tony, though the poem about him and the pieman again goes back to the seventeenth century. The second will reintroduce you to Simpicissimus, the superlative of simpleton (as it were) and the hero of a famous eighteenth-century German book by Hans Jakob Chr. Von Grimmelshausen.
You can find the entire article here.