2

Example:

I'm a mule when it comes to math.

Is this usage common? If not, what other animal or object is more widely used by native English speakers?

  • 1
    It was a productive metaphor back in the days when people had actual experience with mules. – Robusto Sep 11 '15 at 12:19
  • 7
    Stubbornness is usually associated with mules, and sometimes hardworking. I'd say ass is the one you're thinking of. – Mari-Lou A Sep 11 '15 at 12:19
  • 2
    Dunce : a person who is stupid or slow to learn. – user66974 Sep 11 '15 at 12:26
  • 2
    You should tell us explicitly what you are like in the context of math (do you stubbornly resist being taught, stubbornly persist in trying to learn, or something else?). If you have a dilletante attitude, you might be a butterfly. If you voraciously devour all aspects of the subject, perhaps you're a gannet. Etc., etc. – FumbleFingers Sep 11 '15 at 12:36
  • 2
    @FumbleFingers the question title makes this quite clear. – Mari-Lou A Sep 11 '15 at 13:55

10 Answers 10

18

The idiom usually associated with mules is stubborness

stubborn as a mule
Extremely obstinate, as in He's stubborn as a mule about wearing a suit and tie. This simile evokes the proverbial stubbornness of mules, whose use as draft animals was once so common that the reputation for obstinacy can hardly be as warranted as the term indicates. [Early 1800s]

Funnily enough, donkeys are considered to be stupid animals. Think of Pinocchio and his donkey ears (and tail) that appeared when he played truant (AmEng played hooky) from school.

enter image description here

If the OP wishes to express someone's ignorance of math, I would suggest using a different expression.

I'm a complete idiot when it comes to math.

Alternatively, the noun numbskull is also very appropriate.

a stupid person; dolt; blockhead

I'm a numbskull when it comes to math.

Source: Tne Free Dictionary

  • 1
    Pinocchio in depicted as a donkey because of the Italian somaro (donkey) meaning dunce, ass. – user66974 Sep 11 '15 at 12:43
  • 1
    In Italian the "sei un asino" (you're a donkey/ass) is also commonly heard. – Mari-Lou A Sep 11 '15 at 12:47
  • Can confirm for Spanish ["Eres un asno"] as well. – J A Terroba Sep 11 '15 at 13:44
  • Normally I'd say: "playing truant" and leave it at that, it means a (healthy) student who doesn't go to school, but because they are many non-native speakers on ELU, I felt constrained to add the redundant "from school". I don't feel it is particularly wrong per se, but why use four words when two are sufficient? I also added hooky for our American friends. So, you could say I'm repeating myself three times! – Mari-Lou A Sep 12 '15 at 4:45
4

Suggest birdbrain (informal noun):

Example sentence:

'I'm such a birdbrain when it comes to math(s).'

A comprehensive list of synonyms for birdbrain is available through the online M-W Thesaurus

3

Mule, Donkey, and Ass (animal) are all used to denote stubbornness, lack of intelligence, or lack of empathy for others.

"That person is a donkey." Insult to that person's intelligence. Could also be used when a person is being socially clumsy. If you witness a person being very loud at a restaurant, calling them a donkey to your friend would be appropriate.

"What an ass" Insult to a person's sensitivity to another. If a driver cuts you off in traffic, that person is an ass. This one is a bit conflated with asshole - be careful with its use. Not everyone will hear Mule when you say Ass. Many in the US will assume you are talking about the anus.

"Don't be such a mule" Insult to a persons unwillingness to change (stubbornness) or intellect. Often a part of a longer description: "that person is as stubborn as a mule".

  • As an American English speaker, I've personally never heard "donkey" used like that. I also wouldn't find the phrase "What an ass" to be particularly unusual, and actually "What an asshole" seems more common and to me is just a harsher version of the former. I would not think you were literally referring to someone's anus in either case. – Sam Sep 11 '15 at 21:05
  • This answer needs some references to authoritative sources. – Margana Sep 11 '15 at 23:40
3

In Asimov's Foundation series of books, a character named Mule has the notion of strength associated to his name, as in some sort of brute force, but never the notion of lack of intelligence.

If you really want to use an animal in your specific phrase, you could try something like:

I'm like a fish out of water when it comes to math.

Or some other expression, but this is not directly related to your question title.

  • In those books The Mule was also revealed to be infertile (like most mules) so this is a connotation you may wish to avoid. "I'm not very fertile when it comes to math." – Nick Gammon Sep 11 '15 at 23:32
2

I can't think of a standard animal/object/phrase that would naturally fit the gap in I'm a ___ when it comes to math except for something dull like I'm a dunce when it comes to math.

If you're looking for something a bit more poetic, in British English, you can combine the informal colloquialism thick (meaning stupid) with a standard simile for emphasis and comic impact, e.g. as thick as two short planks or as thick as mince (the latter is perhaps specific to Scotland).

So if you wanted a nice idiomatic, albeit very informal, British English way to express your innumeracy you could say:

I'm as thick as two short planks when it comes to maths.

(Of course in British English we say maths rather than math.)

  • +1 there is no single animal name that fits into that space in American English and makes unambiguous sense. – mxyzplk Sep 11 '15 at 15:04
2

Others have well addressed the mule question.

As to animal terms used to convey stupidity, consider dodo

  1. (Informal) A stupid person; an idiot.

American Heritage Dictionary

2

These days mule is used more often to mean a courier who carries and delivers something illegal like drugs across borders and past checkpoints. Even though other connotations for mule still stand, using the word for anything other than illegal courier invites confusion and a bump in your reader's experience, which should be as smooth as possible.

Mari-Lou A makes a good point that a mule is considered more stubborn than stupid.

Many others have suggested other animals for stupidity, but you also might want to keep in mind that most of these are hackneyed clichés. You'd do well to forge your own expression for stupidity.

Finally please note that while dumb has through misuse come to mean stupid, it originally means a person who does not speak and who is therefore considered stupid. Since dumb evokes this bit of wrong and insensitive thinking, it too is best avoided.

  • This is a nice summary. There may have been a time where mule connoted stupidity (etymonline says, meaning "obstinate, stupid, or stubborn person" is from 1470s), but that meaning seems to have waned while the notion of stubborness has held fast. – J.R. Sep 11 '15 at 20:28
  • +1 dumb has through misuse come to mean stupid, it originally means a person who does not speak and who is therefore considered stupid. Since dumb evokes this bit of wrong and insensitive thinking, it too is best avoided – Margana Sep 11 '15 at 23:42
0

In Canada, we used to say "bobo". For instance, "Don't be such a bobo!" or I suppose, "I'm a bobo at math."

I don't know why... ;)

  • 1
    Because bobo is Spanish for clown or dunce. – tchrist Sep 12 '15 at 3:59
  • @tchrist Somewhat less insulting than "idiota". – Dr. belisarius Sep 13 '15 at 0:44
0

Why restrict yourself to animals?

You could say something like, "when it comes to math, I'm just one of the Pid Brothers, but I'm not sure which one: Mo, Ron or Stu."

Or, if you prefer brevity, how about, "I'm a mathoron."

There's always, "I'm no Albert Einstein when it comes to math."

Be inventive, and that will distract from your math liabilities.

-1

Answer

No, we don't use 'mule' with that meaning. However the term 'jackass' is commonly used especially in the USA.

Explanation

If you look for mule in an English dictionary you will see that it can mean a stubborn person or someone who carries drugs. It does not specifically signify stupidity in English.

mule noun \ˈmyül\ Definition of MULE

1 a : a hybrid between a horse and a donkey; especially : the offspring of a male donkey and a mare b : a self-sterile plant whether hybrid or not c : a usually sterile hybrid 2 : a very stubborn person

: a machine for simultaneously drawing and twisting fiber into yarn or thread and winding it into cops 4 slang : a person who smuggles or delivers illicit substances (as drugs)

Merriam Webster

In British English, calling someone an 'ass' is distinct from 'arse'. The British meaning of 'ass' refers to the animal and is another word for a donkey. It means a stupid person. However it is little used these days because of the conflict in meaning with American English where 'ass' means 'backside'.

The difference is explained in more detail here. Cambridge Dictionary

Another term - also outdated - is donkey.

I the USA they currently use the term 'jackass' to mean a foolish person. Merriam Webster

I am not aware of a current British word for fool that uses the name of an animal. However we do understand the US term jackass.

  • 8
    But jackass isn't used to connote stupidity, just being a jerk. No one would ever say "a jackass at math" unless every time they finish a problem they leap up and fart in a classmates' face or something. – mxyzplk Sep 11 '15 at 15:02

protected by Andrew Leach Sep 15 '15 at 10:46

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.