I'm not sure how to ask what I want to ask, but I'll try. Is there a thing like the following and how is it called, maybe some kind of a rule or an explanation ?

Let's say I have two nouns : idiot and fool. In which context I should use one and in which another one ?

Fo example if a person does some little stupid thing that does no harm then I can call that person for example an idiot, but if that person does something majorly stupid than the word "idiot" won't cut it and I would have to use "fool" because it better represents the strength of what he did and what he is ?

What are those kind of noun properties called in English ? Can I read somewhere about it or even does something like that exist ?

Thank you.

  • 1
    They just mean slightly different things. They're not on a 1-dimensional "spectrum of insults". Each word has different connotations and may be more or less insulting than the other depending on context. Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 9:15
  • But are there any synonyms that obviously have the same meaning but different strengths ?
    – Newcomer
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 9:18
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    There are lots of words which insult someone's intelligence - you can find them in a thesaurus. This won't list them by "strength", because it's not as simple as that. Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 9:19
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    I'm not sure that 'strength' or anything related to it is a property you can identify in a noun. When you break it down, you don't want 'fool' and 'idiot' to have 'the same meaning, but different strengths' you just want them to have different meanings so that you can choose the appropriate one (which for my money you have the wrong way round in your example). To apply different strengths to exactly the same meaning, you would use an intensifier eg 'complete idiot', or 'utter fool'.
    – Spagirl
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 9:50
  • 1
    @Spagirl that's interesting and more logical. Thank you.
    – Newcomer
    Commented Jul 12, 2016 at 10:27

1 Answer 1


I think the short answer is "no". There's no single word that captures what you're asking for, i.e. the difference in intensity of nouns describing different points within the spectrum of a specific attribute.

This may well be because many such nouns invoke a highly subjective response; in a fluid language like English, their impact and even their meaning is subject to variation over geography and time and between individuals. This is particularly true of words that can be intended or taken as an insult.

The example you've given - the difference between "idiot" and "fool" - is a case in point. While being described as either is almost certainly insulting, the two words actually address two different attributes, intelligence and wisdom, the gradations of each being highly contestable in their own right without even considering how to weigh the difference between the attributes themselves.

Up to about sixty years ago, "cretin" (severe), "idiot" (severe), "imbecile" (moderate), "moron" (mild) and "feeble-minded" (mild) defined specific levels of intellectual disability. By the 1960s, however, these terms had been replaced by the more generic "mental retardation", and the euphemism treadmill delivered "retard" as the new insult; the latter is still extremely offensive, whereas few nowadays would rely on the historic differentiate between "idiot" and "moron" in judging intensity of insult.

"Fool", on the other hand, describes "A person who acts unwisely or imprudently; a silly person". The attribute here is not intelligence but wisdom - "the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement". Synonyms include clown, goose, sucker, and my favorite pejorative, buffoon.

However, trying to categorise such nouns, whether by intensity or by attribute, is a risky business. Stupidity can refer to a lack of intelligence or wisdom. Amongst the other synonyms of fool, "oaf", "galoot" and "schlemiel" bring with them a sense of clumsiness, "duffer", "wally", "dipstick" and "nincompoop" add a sense of incompetence, "dunce" and "ignoramus" introduce the dimension of education, and "nerd" and "dweeb" the dimension of social ability.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention some antepodean synonyms for idiot or fool: dill, drongo and boofhead. Someone trying to order these synonyms in severity of insult might be a galah.


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