What is a Nincompoop?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

The word "nincompoop" has certainly earned its ranking as one of the most enjoyable words to pronounce in the English language, regardless of the fact that no one quite knows how or when it was coined. Essentially, a word describes a fool, a stupid person whose incompetence or naïveté is quite apparent. It is often used to describe people of a much lower social ranking, although some may describe an unpopular or incompetent leader as an "utter nincompoop." For others, the word could be used interchangeably with other pejoratives such as "nimrod," "ninny" or "numb skull." In military circles, an incompetent non-commissioned officer may be called a "noncompoop".

Nincompoop is often used to describe a fool.
Nincompoop is often used to describe a fool.

The origin of this word is a matter of speculation, although there are a few interesting theories. One of the earliest literary uses of "nincompoop" occurred in a 1676 play called The Plain Dealer, written by British playwright William Wycherley. One character scolds another, calling him a "senseless, impertinent, quibbling, drivelling, feeble, paralytic, impotent, fumbling, frigid nincompoop." Even earlier references contain the variant spellings "nicompoop" and "nickumpoop."

Some have speculated that the word is a nonsense word that combines elements of other words implying ignorance or stupidity. The word "ninny," for example, was a corruption of "innocent," meaning a naïve or gullible person. In Dutch, the word poop was often used to describe a fool. It is conceivable that the originator of "nincompoop" was seeking to combine several unsophisticated words into one nonsensical but descriptive word.

Others believe the word was a corruption of the Latin phrase non compos mentis, meaning "not of sound mind." This theory has not been universally embraced, however, since the original spellings of "nincompoop" do not suggest such a relationship. Another similar theory suggests that it was inspired by a French phrase, ne comprend pas, meaning "he does not understand." It is possible that a British native familiar with the French language playfully created a new guttural insult, complete with a coarse Dutch ending.

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments


I was told by my German relatives that it meant a person who was so stupid they held their poop in. Look at the word parts - makes sense.


The word nincompoop origins are not really defined through history – but I sure would love to get the credit for coming up with a word like that!

Have you ever wondered where actual words come from? They say that people coin new words that end up in the dictionaries every single day. I would love to create one – but how do you even begin with something like that?

The truth is, though, that if I were ever given credit for any word I would want it to be one like ‘nincompoop.’ It's normally said playfully and without obvious malice!


Although nincompoop probably isn’t a very popular word for today’s youth to use, it is still a very descriptive and effective word.

Part of this is the fact that it is universally understood by all of us who speak English – if you’re being a nincompoop you are indeed being an idiot.

I have no idea where it came from, but I like it! I like to use it because it is generally understood that you aren’t actually calling the accused stupid at all – it’s just a figure of speech!

That way, you don't have to worry about them having a conniption!


My sisters and I used to call each other names like this when we were kids. It's one of those easy three syllable words you can say when your young.

I haven't used the word in years nor has it been used on me as far as I know, knock on wood. My favorite words today that are similar to nincompoop meaning are dim wit and numb skull.


Most people have so much fun saying the word that I don't think they've actually put much thought into the word nincompoops origin. I've heard some pretty bizarre stories before, but one I heard recently during bible class that may actually hold some truth.

We were discussing the progression of the English language and funny the word nincompoop should come up in our discussion.

It might be possible that it is somehow linked to the given name Nicodemus or Nicholas. In the book of St. John the Pharisee was known for his naive questioning of Christ.


Hadn't used this word forever, but a van on the highway almost changed lanes directly into me, and the word just leaped into my mouth out of nowhere.


It is a fun word to say! So is nincompoopery, what a nincompoop does during the day.

Grandma always called us harebrained instead, the "poop" in nincompoopery was just not proper for a lady to say.

Grandmas always find a pleasant way to tell you you're acting stupid lol!

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