5

Googling would suggest that it can, but believing everything you read on the Internet is a risky business. I have the Concise Oxford English Dictionary eighth edition 1990 and a Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary from 1977 and neither of them list the word ignorant as a noun. Sadly I do not have access to the full OED as my local library has just closed.

I saw the word used by a native Hindi speaker, and I think it is being used as a synonym of ignoramus. It may well be that this is accepted usage in Indian English.

A quick footnote:

WS2 makes the excellent point that ignorant can be used as noun in phrases like:

He is the kind of politician who relies on the ignorant for support

So that answers my question in the affirmative. However the way I saw the word being used was more like:

You are an ignorant

I would be interested to know if this is proper use of English, or possibly a proper use of Indian English

  • 3
    @Ricky Of course it can be used as a noun. "He is the kind of politician who relies on the ignorant for support". – WS2 Mar 29 '17 at 8:47
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    @WS2 Uh ... You're right. My bad. – Ricky Mar 29 '17 at 8:48
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    @Ricky Though the sense I quoted is in widespread use, I since note that it is not included in the OED. The latter does accept ignorant as a noun, but only in the sense of "an ignorant person". 1874 J. T. Micklethwaite Mod. Parish Churches 239 Church authorities..too often entrust their buildings to ignorants. But there is no question that the ignorant as a collective noun for the uninformed of society is widely used. – WS2 Mar 29 '17 at 8:53
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    @WS2 I'm not sure whether the ignorant functioning as a noun phrase makes ignorant a noun on its own. You can form nouns from other adjectives in place of ignorant if you stick a the in front of it - e.g. the informed or the well-educated. – Lawrence Mar 29 '17 at 9:02
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    An ignoramus would be much more idiomatic. – Phil Sweet Mar 29 '17 at 12:47
11

In theory any adjective can be employed as a noun—in fact, until the middle of the 18th century western grammatical theory put adjectives in the same category as nouns, distinguishing only between 'adjective' and 'substantive' uses of the noun. And in many modern European languages adjectives are employed as nouns very freely: in German, for instance, the only difference between an adjective and a noun is that the noun is capitalized—der arme Mann and der Arme both represent E 'the poor man'. French (le pauvre) doesn't even make that distinction.

However, English does differ from other languages in restricting nominal use to adjectives which represent readily recognized categories. The poor, the rich, the ignorant are acceptable collective nouns, designating all poor/rich/ignorant people, but we do not ordinarily use the rich to designate a specific rich person. That sort of use occurs only in discourses where the adjective has previously been established as categorial. For instance:

Do you want one of the red t-shirts or a black one?
I'll have a red.

CGEL treats this sort of use as an instance of the adjective fusing with its implied head, just as determinatives like which and some fuse with their implied heads to constitute pronouns.

2

Ignorant is an adjective, Etymonline cites its usage as a noun also. I think it is an archaic usage. Note that the Spanish (ignorante) and the Italian (ignorante) are both adjectives and nouns, so the Google results might be from inaccurate translations:

  • late 14c., "lacking wisdom or knowledge; unaware," from Old French ignorant (14c.), from Latin ignorantem (nominative ignorans) "not knowing, ignorant," present participle of ignorare "not to know, to be unacquainted; mistake, misunderstand; take no notice of, pay no attention to," from assimilated form of in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + Old Latin gnarus "aware, acquainted with" .

  • Form influenced by related Latin ignotus "unknown, strange, unrecognized, unfamiliar." Colloquial sense of "ill-mannered, uncouth, knowing nothing of good manners" attested by 1886. As a noun, "ignorant person," from mid-15c.

1

To get a sense of historical use of ignorant as a noun, I ran a Google Books search for the plural form ignorants—and found a fair number of matches, stretching back to the 1600s. Here are some examples from various points along the timeline.

From John Seldon, The Historie of Tithes: That Is, the Practice of Payment of Them, the Positiue Laws Made for Them, the Opinions Toching the Right of Them (1618):

Therefore I suppose (if he haue not studied the Laws, or otherwise know it) he will rather take some minuts pains then blame me for not turning it. and howsoeuer to diuers peeuish Ignorants, out of their daintie stomachs, and a pretence of nothing but the more polished literature, it may here seem barbarous and distastefull; ... If to so great a man [Father Gregorie] that curious language could seeme no pleasanter when he studied it, it is the lesse wonder that the Law French (which doth as truly and fully deliuer the matter in our Lawes, as the Latin in the Imperialls ; though indeed farre from polite expression) should bee so contemptible among the many petie Ignorants which vsually despise what euer their lazie course of studies hath not furnisht them withall, ...

From Edward, Lord Bishop of Cork & Rosse, A Practical and Plain Discourse of the Form of Godliness, Visible in the Present Age, and of the Power of Godliness (1683):

Now there is no doubt but both and all thefe, our Church ignorants, and our Outlying-ignorants, and that whether through supine negligence and sloth, or through resolute design and obstinacy, all of them, I say, Deny the Power of Godlineß, whatsoever they may have or retain of the Form : For they stop the very first passage by which Godlineß can come to their hearts, or ever have any power over them ; namely they suffer it not to enter into their Understandings.

From Abraham Cowley, "Bathing in the River," in The Mistress: Or, Several Copies of Love-Verses (1720):

Why to Mute Fish should'st thou thy self discover,/ And not to me thy no less silent Lover?/ As some from Men their buried Gold commit/ To Ghosts that have no use of it!/ Half their rich Treasures so/ Maids bury; and for ought we know/ (Poor Ignorants) they're Mermaids all below.

From "Debate in the Lords on the State of the Civil List" (March 14, 1770), in The Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure (1770) [combined snippets]:

The Earl of Chatham spoke in support of the motion. ... In every other respect, the minute and particular expences of the Civil List are as open to Parliamentary examination and inquiry, in regard to the application and abuse, as any other grant of the people to any other purpose; and Ministers are equally or more culpable for incurring any unprovided expence, and for running in arrear this service, as for any other. The preambles of all the Civil-list acts prove this, and none but children, novices, or ignorants, will ever act without proper regard to it; and, therefore, I can never consent to increase fraudulently the Civil establishment under pretence of making up deficiencies; ...

From J. Ewing Ritchie, "The French Revolution of February," in The Metropolitan Magazine (April 1848):

And so wretched was the instruction given [in France], that we find a large proportion of the criminals amongst the educated, and not the uneducated classes. In the most ignorant of the French departments, Correze, with eight hundred and four ignorants in one thousand young men of twenty-one years of age, there was but one criminal in ten thousand three hundred and sixty inhabitants. In the department of Creuse, where the ignorants were six hundred and twenty-one to one thousand, there was but one criminal in twenty-one thousand inhabitants; whilst in the Seine Inferieure, with three hundred and forty-six ignorants, and Seine et Marne with two hundred and twenty-eight, the proportion was four thousand four hundred and ninety-six inhabitants for one criminal, in the first, and in the second, six thousand one hundred and ninety-four. The general average of departmental criminal statistics gave one convict for every six thousand three hundred and seventy-nine inhabitants, and four hundred and eighty-four ignorants in one thousand men; while in the forty-three least criminal departments, the ignorants ere five hundred and eighteen in one thousand, and one convict in eleven thousand eight hundred and twenty-nine inhabitants.

From Seymour Supercern, Truth Will Out: An Emergence from Chaos and Subterfuge Into Light and Reality (1912):

Hypocrisy! mean, sneaking weasel, means self-deteriment,/ But Bigotry means self-annihilation, as 't has meant,/ In times gone by when nations slaughtered, slew, like fiends run loose,/ Harangued and tortured, murdered, butchered at the slightest ruse,/ As 't has meant when ignorants, those would-be pious pests,/ Fall down with faces in the bogs, callous to all behests,/ To rise them up from foul and festering filth, where all is night,/ Cimmerian as a Stygian realm; ah, pity 'pon the bigot's plight!/ As it now means, as it has meant, still grovelling in the bog,/ Till grown to it, like marshy mosses to a swamp-lain log./ Though mitigated nowaday if not eradicate,/ It still holds sway 'mongst unenlightened and 'twill not abate,/ Until the ignorants will be enlightened in such wise,/ As to make them see through things alone, a self-wrought willful rise.

From American Scientist (1942) [snippet view]:

Here is how they begin:

The stochastic theory of rumours, with interacting subpopulations of ignorants, spreaders and stiflers, began with the seminal paper of Daley and Kendall.

...

Spreaders communicate the rumor to ignorants, turning them into spreaders; when two spreaders meet, both become stiflers; a spreader who meets a stifler also becomes a stifler. The process begins with a single spreader in a sea of ignorants.

From Intrapreneurial Excellence (1985) [combined snippets]:

The Innovation Ignorants. Made up of some of America's best known companies, this group of firms still does not appreciate the close correlation between longer-term growth in return on equity, sales, and earnings and the skills required in the management of innovation. Typically nothing will change the behavior of the innovation ignorants until one of two things happens. Either they get into serious trouble in their markets and are forced to say, "We've got to learn to manage change," or they experience a change in leadership that leads to a new set of organizational values.

From Arnulf Depperman, "Using the Other for Oneself: Conversational Practices of Representing Out-Group Members Among Adolescents," in Selves and Identities in Narrative and Discourse (2007):

Just before the transcript starts, one part of the youngsters (the "savants") played a trick on the others ("the ignorants") by requesting them to hand them objects (a bottle, a toy cow, etc.) that the savants had glued to the walls and to the desk of the caravan. The ignorants' failure to lift the objects pleased the savants, while the ignorants reacted with irritation (see Mark's insult in line 01).


Conclusions

From these results it appears that ignorant[s] was in general use in the 1600s and on through the early decades of the 1800s, with the meaning "ignorant person or people." Noah Webster, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) offers this entry for the word as a noun referring to a type of human being:

Ignorant, n. one who is untaught or unskilled.

In more-recent decades, the term ignorant[s] has popped up in the fields of psychology, business, and social science—in each case with a fairly narrow and specialized meaning.

The upshot of all this is that, although a great many native English speakers would view calling someone "an ignorant" as nonstandard English, the word used as a noun and applied to people has a past and a present in the language—and may very well have a future, too.

0

If I were to come across someone using the word "ignorant" as a noun in speech, I would assume that they were not native English speakers. If I am helping someone learn how to more properly use English, then I would tell them that this usage was incorrect. Edit - You mentioned that this Indian man used the word as a synonym for ignoramus. When I imagine the scenario, I hear him speaking in the second person: "No, you know nothing. You ignorant." Or, "She said that the New Testament had five Gospels, she is an ignorant." In either of these cases, usage as a noun is not common. In the case of the ignorant you do not have a noun in the common sense because "Politicians rely on the support of the ignorant" implies a noun that isn't there but is understood in context: "Politicians rely on the support of the ignorant constituents." If I and my girlfriend are sorting red and blue beads, during the course of the conversation I might say "I'll sort the red, you sort the blue." When an adjective is used in this way it is only technically a noun and has no bearing on your question.

  • Hi, and thanks for your answer. However it's nice to cite some sources to support your conclusions otherwise it seems as though you are just expressing an opinion. – John Rennie Mar 29 '17 at 10:28
  • Thanks. It is just an opinion. This is only the second time I have engaged on Stack, and I'm not sure I have the time to become a pro anytime soon, so forgive if I break norms. To answer your comment, though, when it comes to language, especially usage, the source is us. There are no rules or right answers that are anywhere near as concrete as 2 + 2 = 4. That is why I answered as I did. If there is no source cited, then the answer is by definition an opinion. I produced the logic behind the answers using my own understanding of English in hopes that it would add to yours. This bothers you? – RighterLeftee Mar 29 '17 at 11:48
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    I was hoping for answers based on recognised authorities like the Oxford English Dictionary or Fowler's Use of English, or indeed other authorities that I don't know about. One personal opinion is of no use because I have no way of judging how representative it is. Suppose someone else posts a personal opinion that contradicts yours. How am I to know who is correct? – John Rennie Mar 29 '17 at 12:03
  • I would understand that line of reasoning if we were somehow having this discussion on a device that excludes the internet, and I'm not saying you don't have good reasons I don't know about to have this problem, but it took me 5 seconds to search "ignorant as noun" on Safari and find a Czech variation. Perhaps I should have commented and asked whether the person speaking was a native English speaker. Some in India are, many are not. That would have helped me to give you a better answer, or given me pause. I certainly wasn't trying to confuse you. – RighterLeftee Mar 29 '17 at 13:26
  • Ignorant can also be used in phrases such as "ignorant of history," or "ignorant of the terminology used in the financial industry," to focus on lack of knowledge in a field rather than simply being uneducated. – Xanne Mar 29 '17 at 21:24

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