[Bards] Is "dumb" period?

Jay and Diane Rudin rudin at ev1.net
Fri Nov 15 07:03:08 PST 2002

"kovac myklos" aasked:

> I'm currently working on an original song and I want it to be somewhat
> so I was wondering if anyone could answer this question.
> In late period usage (late 16th centaury) was the word "dumb" used to
refer to
> someone that was silly or dim-witted, or was it only used to mean mute?
> not, what would be a good, one-syllable period alternative.  The sentance
> reads, "... His dumb brother"

Can you give us a full couplet, or at least a line?  Also, what's the meter?
You're already allowing at least some metrical variation (quite appropriate
for that time), because "dumb" and "broth-" are both accented.  I had to
completely re-write four lines of "The Baron" when I realized that "shack"
was a twentieth century word, and had to re-write some lines in "The
Chaplain's Tale" to get rid of modern uses of "noble", and a few other

> I am going to try to find the word used in a primary source for my
> documentation, but if anyone knows the answer to my question already, I
> appreciate the advice.

Only as a metaphor.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "the phrase
"dumb beasts" was used by 1225, but it specifically was characterizing them
as lower animals that could not speak.  By extension, they knew less and
were intellectually inferior, but the primary meaning is "incapable of

By the 1500s, it was sometimes used metaphorically, to describe something
that had no meaning to others ["... as the byshop of Rome doeth with his
domme traditions", Tyndale. 1531].  Even in these metaphors, the primary
meaning is something or someone that does not communicate.

The first use of "dummy" as "dolt" or "blockhead" is in the 1700s, and even
then, it meant somebody too stupid to speak up.

"Dumb" is never synonymous with "silly" in period, either.  Depending on
context, "silly" means pitiable, or meager, or unlearned and
unsophisticated.  It doesn't carry the context of low intelligence until the

An Oxford English Dictionary is a great tool for SCA research.  The new OED2
is pretty expensive, but you can often find an older compact OED in used
bookstores for not too much.

Robin of Gilwell / Jay Rudin

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