The Grammarphobia Blog

Stupid, stupider, and stupidest

Q: Being an avid IRC user in Australia, I chat with a lot of US folk. Your site was able to explain to me why I hadn’t seen many of them use “whilst,” “amongst,” and “amidst” as much as I do. I was wondering if you could answer this question. Back in high school, my senior English teachers used to complain about the superlative “stupidest.” They proclaimed that “stupid” could not be used in such a manner, and that only “most stupid” was appropriate. Any idea where their belief may have originated?

A: I don’t see any problem with “stupidest.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), for example, gives the forms as “stupid” … “stupider” … “stupidest.”

And this isn’t a peculiar Americanism. H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage also gives the correct forms as “stupid” … “stupider” … “stupidest.”

Fowler hints, though, at what might account for your teachers’ avoiding “est” in favor of “most” to form the superlative:

“Neglect or violation of established usage with comparatives & superlatives sometimes betrays ignorance, but more often reveals the repellent assumption that the writer is superior to conventions binding on the common herd.”

And “stupidest” does seem to be quite common in English usage. While the Oxford English Dictionary has no entry specifically for “stupidest,” I did find the word in several quotations cited within other entries, including these:

1828: Thomas Carlyle, in a letter, refers to “the simplest and stupidest man of his day.”

1842: Samuel Lover, in Handy Andy: A Tale of Irish Life (1842), writes, “She felt the pique which every pretty woman experiences who fancies her favours disregarded, and thought Andy the stupidest lout she ever came across.”

1871: Charles Gibbon, in the novel For Lack of Gold, writes, “This cursed frenzy makes me say and think the stupidest things.”

Just for the heck of it, I searched online in “The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, 1674-1913,” and found the word used in testimony in a theft case tried in May 1785. A prosecutor is quoted as saying, “I should be the stupidest man living, having property, to leave my house so unsafe.”

The Old Bailey site is great fun, by the way. Check it out, when you’re not channeling with Internet Relay Chat!

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