Release notes: IGN-

Release notes: IGN-

A verdict of ignoramus

The word ignoramus is today most familiar to us as a way to describe a stupid or ignorant person; however, the word has its origins in a legal procedure, first described in 1583. In Latin ‘ignoramus’ means ‘we do not know’, and this was the formula grand juries wrote on a bill of indictment when they decided that there was insufficient evidence for a person to go before a trial jury. If the grand jury decided that someone should stand trial, they wrote ‘billa vera’ (‘the bill is true’) on the indictment. Today, the only jurisdictions which still use grand juries are Liberia and the United States, and ‘ignoramus’ is only used in Liberia. In the United States it has been superseded by ‘not a true bill’, ‘not found’, or ‘no bill’.

Around the same time as ‘ignoramus’ was recorded as being used by grand juries, it also appeared as a name for fictional characters, especially foolish or stupid characters who had some connection with the law. The most famous example of this was in George Ruggle’s controversial Latin play of 1615, Ignoramus. In this work, ‘written to expose the ignorance and arrogance of the common lawyers’, Ignoramus is the name of a lawyer. The yoking of the legal and derogatory contexts of the word can also be seen in the phrase ‘ignoramus jury’, which was used literally to refer to a jury returning a verdict of ‘ignoramus,’ but was also often used critically to disparage the Whig jury who in 1681 rejected a bill of indictment for high treason against the Earl of Shaftesbury.

The first recorded use of ‘ignoramus’ as a common (rather than proper) noun used to denote an ignorant person is from 1616 (one year after Ruggles’ play was first performed) and by the end of the 17th century it was firmly established in the language:

A screenshot from the OED entry for 'ignoramus'

Ignoring an indispensable word

Ignore is a word even more familiar to us than ignoramus. It falls into the same frequency band as other common words such as ‘dog’, ‘mile’, and ‘stress’. However, the main sense, referring to a refusal or failure to acknowledge a person or thing, is of surprisingly recent origin. Although the word itself goes back to the Middle English period, it was used to mean ‘to not know (something)’ or, later, to refer to a grand jury rejecting an indictment with the word ‘ignoramus’. The earliest usage the OED has found for the now-usual sense of ‘to disregard’ is from 1795:

This simple principle, which is so efficacious in any other case, ought not to be neglected and ignored so much.

However, for the next fifty years this usage was still seen as something of a novelty or was not commonly known. Thomas De Quincey, for example, writes in 1830:

The word England is obsolete, except in the use of grand juries.

Returning to this passage in 1857, De Quincey notes:

It was written in the summer of 1830, at which time no vestige of a suspicion had arisen that very soon the word would be called back; or rather would be raised from a lifeless toleration in law-books to a popular and universal currency. It was a word much wanted‥. Yet there are pedants who..would even now (1857) ignore this indispensable word.

The indispensability of the word ignore raises the question of what people used before the 19th century to refer to ignoring a person or thing. Here the Historical Thesaurus of the OED comes to our aid. The category ‘ignore, disregard’ has a multitude of alternatives including forheed, misknowledge, and unnotice.

A mistake due to ignorance

Finally, even the OED makes mistakes, and another entry in this set gives an insight into how a mistranscription can result in a spurious dictionary entry.

In 1899, the New English Dictionary published the fascicle HOD–IN. It contained the entry ignotism, defined as ‘a mistake due to ignorance’ with one quotation from the Gentleman’s Magazine. Revision of an entry often involves checking existing quotations to ensure that they are bibliographically sound and sometimes to gather more information about the context in which the word appears.

When the quotation at ignotism was checked it became apparent that it had been mistranscribed and the word in question was actually Ignotoisms.

But what is an Ignotoism? Could it have still meant ‘a mistake due to ignorance’? A search of the text of the Gentleman’s Magazine for the word ‘Ignoto’ showed that there was more going on. ‘Ignoto’ appears several times in many issues of the magazine and was revealed to be the name of a person, a writer of long letters on theological issues which were the subject of withering criticism from other readers of the magazine. Ignoto itself is a pseudonym meaning ‘anonymous’.

Therefore, rather than being ‘a mistake due to ignorance’, an Ignotoism was shown to be something much more specific: a mistake of the kind Ignoto would make. Further research revealed no other instances of ‘Ignotoism’ and it appears to be a one-off coinage connected to a very specific theological debate. If we were writing the dictionary today and came across the word ‘Ignotoism’ we would be unlikely to include it, given that it has gained no further currency. However, the remodelling of the entry ignotism, allows us to set the record straight.

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