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. Continue reading