Doy, or the Etymology of Stupid

When I was a little kid on Long Island, we would always denote the fact that somebody was stupid, or had just said something stupid, by sticking a finger into a cheek and intoning “Doy”. Everybody in town had their own stamp on “Doy”: some would cross their eyes, twist their finger into their cheek and elongate the syllable until somebody told them to shut up, while others would give the word a Looney-Tunes-ish metallic boing, like “Doy-eey-eey-eey …” (repeat for several seconds).

I don’t know who invented “Doy”, but it seemed as natural as any other word, and we all assumed it was universally spoken. But my siblings and I had cousins from up in Boston, and one day when I was about 13 I remember my cousin Steve responding to some repartee from elsewhere in the room with a loud, percussive “DAR”. He actually gave this a resounding echo: “DAR-HAR-HAR”. There was no finger in a cheek. Apparently this is how they did it in Red Sox-land.

In TV comedies, Archie comics and other pop-culture outlets, I began to notice something else, simple and blunt: “Duh”. This usage gained some foothold in my hometown, but was never delivered with the passion or conviction of “Doy”.

As a student at Albany State in the early 80’s, I learned another variant, which was apparently de rigeur in the upstate territories of Buffalo and Rochester. This was a quick and reductive sound, nasal and glottal: “Uh – Dih“. The “Dih” was virtually never spoken without the preceding “Uh …” The tone was dismissive, the voicing almost effeminate. An English language translation would be “Um, you are an idiot.” I didn’t like upstate’s “Dih” anymore than I liked Boston’s “DAR”.

It all came to a crashing crescendo in 1989 when Matt Groening’s The Simpsons introduced “D’oh!”. Needless to say, I had never heard a “D’oh!” in my life. Matt Groening is from the Pacific Northwest.

My 15-year-old son recently introduced me to “Dididi” from comedian Carlos Mencia’s Mind of Mencia. This one sounds a lot funnier than it reads. It’s a sing-song pinhead-sound, best delivered with a perpendicular slicing motion of the hand to the forehead. I believe “Dididi” is a variation on the sing-song “Dee-dee-dee”, which is best intoned while skipping with your tongue between your teeth.

I would like to learn more about the “etymology of stupid”, and I might just have to email William Safire about this. One curious observation: given the near-universal use of the letter “d” to portray stupidity, one would imagine that other words about stupidity would also start with “d”, in the same way that words involving light so often start with “gl” (gleam, glimmer, glow, glare, glisten, etc. etc.). But only two come to mind: “dumb” and “dunce” — “moron”, ‘idiot”, “fool” and “ignoramus” contain hardly any “d”‘s at all.

To conclude this brief study, I’d like to ask: how do you denote stupidity in your hometown?

32 Responses

  1. DoyWe always used ‘Duh’ at

    We always used ‘Duh’ at school here in Australia. But other terms could be Drongo or dork. There is a bit of interesting info on the Etymology if you type ‘idiot’ into Wikipedia

  2. Doy doyeeHi Levi,I’m from
    Doy doyee

    Hi Levi,

    I’m from California, grew up mainly in the Bay Area and doy was exactly as you described — finger to cheek and saying, “doy”.

    Sometimes doy-eeeee.

    I bet the genesis is somewhere in an old black and white comedy from the 30’s. Just a guess.

    And note how mother terms are usually with the m sound and father is f, p or b.

    Remember the 2000 Year Old Man with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner? According to the 2000 year old man all words are omma-namma-poetic.

    Yes I’m sure I spelled that correctly.

  3. dumb or stupid m.f.Dummy was
    dumb or stupid m.f.

    Dummy was what I heard in Central Minnesota. Clueless seemed what went in polite conversation but that seemed passe even back in the day. Unenlightened also comes to mind for now. Clod or tool works well. Idiot still seems most popular. Stupid motherfucker’s my favorite but it is thought rather than spoken and I’ve yet to find a synonym with the same power. A long time ago, I had a surfer friend from South Africa who liked twit. In my old career, I used to hear the adjective “college educated” a lot.

  4. having a birdinteresting
    having a bird

    interesting observation about the “d”-sound, levi — actually, in german, a lot of words indicating stupidity start with that letter. dumm, dubel, depp, dummkopf, dodel, doof, domlich, dussel, etc. — they all begin more or less with sounds of duh- or dah-, which in themselves sound like the inarticulate mumblings of a slow-witted or slightly retarded person already.

    as for how stupidity is denoted around the parts i live — well, you might call someone “balla-balla” if s/he acts or talks stupidly, but mostly you show the other person what you think about their idiotic behaviour non-verbally .

    the most common gesture is tapping your index finger against your temple (sometimes accompanied by the phrase “du hast eine vogel”, literally, “you’re having a bird”, which means that some strange animal inside seems to be driving you insane), or else, “screwing” the finger in a circling motion into the temple or side of your head, mirroring the loose screw of your vis-a-vis.

    a waving motion of one hand is also very popular – moving your palm like a windshield wiper in front of your face clearly shows the other person that you think s/he is talking or acting like a complete fool.

    then there is simple eye-rolling, of course, or inhaling deeply and with a loud sigh while turning your eyeballs upwards.

    sometimes, you can also see people slightly lowering their heads, pointing their index fingers to their eyes and pulling down the skin under the eyelids, while staring at the one acting like a moron. this gesture says something like “oh, yeah…?”, or “you yourself don’t belief what you’re saying, do you!”, or “oh, c’mon!”.

    there’s someone else who mused about duh and dur and doy here here, btw!

  5. dufusAround here we call

    Around here we call people “dufus” when they do something dumb. The term was brought to prominence on Seinfeld when Elaine called Kramer a “hipster dufus.”

    I also like “dumb-ass.”

  6. Hehehe… nothing worse than
    Hehehe… nothing worse than an educated fool. Us college motherfuckers think we know something.

  7. Doy and DuhWhen I was growing
    Doy and Duh

    When I was growing up in Bergen County in the 70’s, it was Doy hands down. It’s such a perfect word I’ve passed it on to my kids so they can enjoy it.

    Now, my grandfather, who was a linguist and knew 8 languages fluently and was a spy for the CIA from it’s inception until he retired, favored Duh. I can still picture him sitting in his lawn chair out in front of his Connecticut ranch house, cigar stub wedged between his lips, and saying a long, drawn out ‘Duhhhh’ in his German accent whenever one of his grandkids said something stupid.

  8. Having a bird — that’s
    Having a bird — that’s great! Here in the USA, we don’t “have a bird”, but we do “flip people the bird”. Quite frequently, in fact.

    Good link too — thanks …

  9. Doofus — of course! Forgot
    Doofus — of course! Forgot that one. I would definitely spell it with the double-O rather than the U though.

  10. doofus — interesting. i
    doofus — interesting. i wonder if that has something to do with the german word for stupid: doof (pronounced dohf)…

  11. On ‘educated fools’ – I used
    On ‘educated fools’ – I used to live in Cambridge, MA, home of Harvard, MIT, etc., and one of the coolest concentrations of creative people anywhere. Boston-area rednecks and the Republican newspaper refer to the city as ‘The People’s Republic of Cambridge,’ on the premise that money and education make you a communist or, worse, a liberal.

    Dumb? The farm louts where I grew up could barely speak at all. Their response to perceived stupidity was a ham-sized fist to the chops, followed by stomping boots to the groin. They’re dead or in jail now. Doy!!

  12. “Flipping the bird” is also
    “Flipping the bird” is also known as the middle-finger salute. It’s widely used while driving or listening to politicians on TV.

  13. ah. i see the bird serves
    ah. i see the bird serves many purposes!

    it is flipped or given to someone. people have it. it has flown, it catches the worm if its early and is killed in pairs with a single stone. it has a certain worth in hands and bushes, can be a story’s topic together with the bees, and, depending on its feathers, becomes a fine creature or flocks together with others.

    what an avian versatility!

  14. Wow, Panta, it probably does!
    Wow, Panta, it probably does! I agree with Levi’s use of the double o’s, and that goes along with the German word. Oh, how scholarly we are!

  15. “The bird, the bird,The bird
    “The bird, the bird,
    The bird is the word.”
    Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen

    And of course, there is the dodo bird! I have heard people say, “You dodo!” (pronounced doe-doe), meaning, “You dummy!” The story goes that the dodo bird became extinct because it was too stupid to avoid danger, but scientists are now questioning that theory.

  16. DilbertI have a friend from

    I have a friend from West Virginia, and he would say “you dilbert” if you did or said something stupid. This was years before the comic strip of the same name.

  17. Very interesting — now that
    Very interesting — now that you mention it, I think I have heard “dilbert” used in this way before the comic book too, though I’d forgotten this till you just mentioned it.

    I think I’ve heard “dillweed” as well. Which also calls to mind that “dim” and “dense” are d-words that signify dumb.

  18. hate to be a dick… but it
    hate to be a dick

    … but it comes from the mentally handicapped. My uncle works with mentally handicapped people and they have a wide array of doh’s da’s dar’s doy’s di di di ‘s and so forth — so stop making fun of the retarded. They are really loving and great people. My cousin is mentally handicapped and when I was 14 or 15 I did an impression that my aunt just about killed me for.

  19. Fair enough, Geoff — I
    Fair enough, Geoff — I didn’t mean to offend anyone.

    Interesting, also, that “dick” is another d-word, though it doesn’t actually mean the same thing. Oh well …

  20. Dork was another word I heard
    Dork was another word I heard in central Minnesota. I don’t know if it’s related to doofus.

  21. I’ve heard ‘dinkweed,’ too. I
    I’ve heard ‘dinkweed,’ too. I think in South Jersey?

    Hey, Levi, you hit pay dirt with this post! Shows where our real interests lie ….

  22. We spelled it….doi, but it
    We spelled it….

    doi, but it was the same thing, often used to comment on our own or someone else’s stupidity or absurdity. I grew up in Pennsylvania where everyone used it. I still use it out here in the midwest where I live now, but people usually look at me strangely when I do. Doi-ah is the noun form.

  23. Don’t forget what Archie
    Don’t forget what Archie Bunker called Edith: Dingbat.

    You know what else comes to mind is Kozinski’s painted bird…not sure why.. sigh.

  24. i seem to remember in new
    i seem to remember in new jersey in the 70’s saying Der. Of course when saying this one had to make the most stupid face possible. Later in Virginia, it was more of a Duh-huh.

  25. n’doyI grew up in Omaha where

    I grew up in Omaha where “N’Doy” without hand gestures was how we rolled.

  26. a-doy nowWe had doy and dur
    a-doy now

    We had doy and dur (der?) on the east side of Manhattan in the ’70s, as well as “a doy now” all drawn out and “a doy hickey”

    we also poked our finger in our cheek or chin to emphasize it.

    The band moe. has an album called “No Doy” which was another thing we used to say, meaning, essentially “no shit” … well, doy!

    “dur” definitely seems like a variation on the classic “duh.”

    I doubt Homer is using a classic northwesternism. I suspect Groening invented d’oh to mean just like what it sounds like: Homer is about to say “Duh” like an idiot when he interrupts himself by saying “Oh!” as in “what an idiot I am!” or “not again!”

    The New York Times once corrected a d’oh back to duh because they were not watching enough TV yet.

    Also, I wish when I logged in the system would return me to where I just was instead of putting me at a random page and making me come back here and then refresh to let it know i’m cool.

  27. I think doy might come from a Chinese word, ‘duì.’ 对

    It means ‘correct’ in Chinese.

    I had a friend from California, and he spoke fluent Mandarin with his parents on the phone. They would talk to him for long periods of time, and he would responsd each time with only, “Doy, doy,” which sounded like an exasperated affirmation to me.

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