Not much between the ears: how to say that someone is stupid

by Liz Walter
There are many different ways of saying that someone is stupid, depending on factors such as who you are talking to, whether or not you care about offending someone, or how serious you are being.

We can describe someone who has trouble understanding things as slow or dim, but note that we almost always put words like a bit or rather in front of these words: Her husband’s a bit dim. My pupils were rather slow. A kinder way of describing a student who isn’t doing well is to use the verb struggle: My daughter struggles with maths. She’s struggling at school.

At a more advanced level, someone with a vacuous expression has little sign of intelligence in their face, while an inane remark is silly and has no real meaning.

In English, it is common to express critical ideas by using positive words in negative sentences. We say things such as: He’s not that bright. She’s not the sharpest pupil I’ve ever taught. They are the less intelligent ones.

As with most difficult subjects, we often use humour to talk about stupidity. Again using negative forms, we say that someone is no Einstein, or that a person doesn’t have much between the ears or isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer/in the block.

Some of the phrases we use to talk about stupid people have many different forms. For example, we can say that someone is a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic, a few bricks short of a load, or a few cents short of a nickel. The speaker is also free to invent other variations. As long as the phrase follows the general structure x short of a y, the meaning is clear.

There are no generally used endings for the phrase have the IQ of a …, but a quick search reveals plenty of inventive examples such as parsnip, wet teabag, jellyfish and tomato soup can.

Foolish and silly are both slightly softer ways of saying ‘stupid’, but they would not be used in a situation that is really serious. For real emphasis, you could use a strong word such as idiotic, or even the colourful British idiom as thick as two short planks.

There may seem to be endless ways of saying that someone is stupid, but Einstein himself was reported to have said ‘Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.’

8 thoughts on “Not much between the ears: how to say that someone is stupid

  1. Two more phrases, both suggesting that a person is alert and cordial but misses the more complicated or sophisticated points:

    “The lights are on, but no one is home” and “His/Her elevator doesn’t run to the top floor.”

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