What’s in a name?

To add to your storehouse of useless information, I offer the following item: The man whose name gave us the word “dunce” was considered one of the great thinkers of his time. Who would have thought it?

This much-maligned fellow was John Duns Scotus and his followers were called Dunsmen, Dunses or Dunces. According to the Webster’s New World Dictionary, they “were regarded as foes of Renaissance humanism,” which in turn led to our modern definition of a dunce as “a dull, ignorant person” or “a person slow at learning” or, in certain quarters, a journalist.

But back in the day, about 1266 to 1308, this Franciscan priest was an intellectual heavyweight. To understand his reputation, which remains great to this day, although some of us are too much the dunces to appreciate it, we need to go to some reference work such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, which can be found in most doctors’ waiting rooms among the magazines from the Middle Ages. (Or else you can go to the Web, as I did.)

Here we read that John Duns Scotus “was one of the most important and influential philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages. His brilliantly complex and nuanced thought, which earned him the nickname ‘the Subtle Doctor,’ left a mark on discussions of such disparate topics as the semantics of religious language, the problem of universals, divine illumination and the nature of human freedom.”

He sounded like a fine fellow, just the sort who could settle bar bets whenever the problem of universals or divine illumination came up, which is what folks talked about back then _ before “American Idol” and sports were invented.

His current disrespect is what he gets for being high during the Middle Ages. Apparently the Subtle Doctor was altogether too subtle for the modern world. He should have been an obvious spin doctor, thereby saving his reputation and blocking the introduction of dunce caps in schools of a latter period.

Some lessons can be drawn from the case of this brilliant Scotsman who became a synonym for dull and ignorant. One concerns the evolving nature of words _ how various factions, be they Dunsmen, Dunses, Dunces or members of the Republican National Committee, can change or twist established meanings through sneering repetition and disdainful flaring of the nostrils.

Take for example, the word liberal. I am one of those, who, as Webster says, is “tolerant of views, differing from one’s own, broad-minded” and “favoring reform or progress in religion, education, etc.; specifically, political reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual … ”

But in the mouths of talk-show hosts and their mindless fans, the word liberal is a parody of its true definition _ a shifty, traitorous character, probably bearded, who thinks kindly thoughts about Osama bin Laden, who loves Ted Kennedy and believes in man-on-dog relations as denounced by Pennsylvania’s own defender of the public morals, Sen. Rick Santorum.

Another word that has come to carry an odious connotation lately is the word “amnesty.” There are many wretches who sit in foreign prisons whose last hope is Amnesty International. Although amnesty can be a good thing, President Bush cannot bring himself to admit that he wants to offer amnesty as part of immigration reform.

It is amnesty, of course, even with penalties attached, and it is perfectly sensible and decent. Unfortunately, amnesty has become a dirty word to those who are thoroughly enjoying beating up on poor Mexicans, the only politically correct form of racism left now that those pesky liberals have made overt expressions of anti-African American prejudice unacceptable.

The words of propaganda that really amuse me, in a sad way, are loaded references to “socialized medicine.” This is supposed to make us flee in terror, like so many vampires before the dawn, in any discussion of the need for a universal health-care system in this country.

Well, having experienced numerous Pennsylvania state liquor stores in my time, I don’t like socialism either, but how many Americans have no health insurance, more than 45 million? I reckon most of us could swallow the meaningless pill of the “socialism” word if it meant getting all of America’s families covered.

This is something to contemplate as you sit in the doctors’ office reading the ancient magazines. Just don’t be a dunce.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)post-gazette.com.)