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Can anyone tell me the origin of the expression 'dumbing down'? It seems increasingly difficult to trace the etymology of neologisms, but I'm curious whether anyone has any information on this phrase. Thank you.

  • A book by John Taylor Gatto titled Dumbing Us Down appeared about 20 years ago and did a lot to popularize the term. It criticized educational practices. – Michael Hardy Oct 16 '13 at 3:07
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The OED’s earliest citation is from the ‘Los Angeles Sunday Times’ in 1927:

Hollywood writers have a process called ‘dumbing it down’.

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The earliest Google Books search result to use the phrase "dumbing it down" is an article in Life magazine from 1932—and like the OED reference that Barrie England cites, it appears to involve Hollywood script writers:

It seems they are convinced that unless they make changes, their employers will not think they are working. The employers, on the other hand, have been sold (probably by script writers) on the idea that it is impossible for the general movie public to understand the contents of a novel unless the language is simplified. They call this "dumbing it down." Well, they can't fool me on this one. Any person of average intelligence could furnish the dialog for "Wayward." All they would need would be a copy of "Wild Beauty," a pair of scissors and a paste pot.

A Google Books search finds multiple instances of the phrase "dumb it down" between 1933 and 1939. The earliest is from Forum and Century, volume 90 (1933):

I can cheer too for the Hollywood gag men in conference on a comedy which has been revealed as too subtle, when they determine they must dumb it down. That phrase saves time and wearying gestures. And "switcheroo" has value in the state department as well as in the mouth of gag men.

From New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art, volume 24 (1935):

If this little book could be made required reading for several categories of people, such as newspaper publishers and writers, producers and writers of plays, makers of movies, all those whose business it is to furnish the great masses of population, lowbrows and highbrows alike, with mental nourishment, it would be thrilling to watch its influence upon them. For it is the settled conviction of most of them that they have to "dumb it down" for the public, that the lower they push their standards of intellectual and emotional appeal, the greater will be their success

From the same issue of New York Times Saturday Review of Books and Art (though probably a different article):

But therein speaks merely the horror of the specialist at the iniquities sometimes perpetrated by crude writers who believe that to popularize a scientific work is to devitalize it and dumb it down to the lowest common denominator of intellect.

From The American Ecclesiastical Review (1936):

It was permissible to change the order of the clauses to avoid monotony, but I could not, as I valued my salary, add an expression of regret or a testimony to his magnificent character. When I had done that sort of thing for weeks I was eventually accepted as a newspaper man. The word "journalist", by the way, is a fighting word in any metropolitan news office. And the refrain, "Dumb it down! Dumb it down!" will ring in my ears, I think, forever.

The earliest instance of "dumbing down" without the "it" in Google Books search results comes from American Association of Group Workers, Group Work (1942):

As we become more competent, and clearer about and more certain of our scientific foundations, it may be that we will then be more ready and able to explain what we mean by "group work." Effective interpretation requires not so much a "dumbing down" of technical material as it does a common attempt on the part of the technician, the administrator, the board member, the citizen, and the consumer to seek out needs, evaluate services, and examine into their effectiveness.

It appears, then, that the original dumb-downers were people in the film industry, but that the phenomenon of dumbing down spread in short order to newspapers, popular science, and other sources of culture. The fact that Reader's Digest picked up and reprinted the 1933 Forum and Century article that same year suggests that Americans far removed from movie studios and newsrooms were exposed to the idea of "dumbing down" within a short time of the term's first known appearance.

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According to Wikipedia the term originated in 1933 in screenplay writers' parlance.

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