The other day on This American Life, Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina GOP, dismissed evidence that vote fraud in the state was basically non-existent:
Don’t show me studies. Academics, I mean, a bunch of knuckleheads, pointy-headed professors. We deal in the real world.
Since I’ve done prior academic work on insults, I was very intrigued at the possibility of my being simultaneously pointy-headed and knuckle-headed, living in an unreality where I and my cranially-challenged colleagues churn out reams of useless studies in order retain Total World Domination.
As it turns out, the origin of knucklehead was a U.S. Army PR/recruitment program’s Goofus-type character (like the old Highlights magazine “Goofus and Gallant”) named R.F. Knucklehead. He was never portrayed as smart, and was always making bad decisions. Here is a cartoon showing Aviation Cadet Knucklehead working hard at signing a simple signature:
Incidentally, knucklehead was also the word chosen by President Obama to describe the prostitute-hiring Secret Service agent shenanigans in Cartagena.
The origin of pointy-headed was George Wallace in 1968 (good company you’re keeping there, Dallas). The word is a play on the shape of an egg, as in egghead. The Washington Post explains the Wallace usage:
He sneered from the campaign podium at the “long-haired men and short-skirted women” of the 1960s and derided “pointy-head college professors who can’t even park a bicycle straight.”
I wonder what happened in the bicycle parking lot between Wallace and some unlucky academic. We’ll never know. But The New York Times brings back the “pointy-head” quote for our times, comparing Wallace’s use of anti-intellectual populist insults to Trump’s.
Chronicle of Higher Ed ran an article back in 2012 listing additional stereotypes that politicians use to describe the hated professor. The article includes a really nice egghead pun from Adlai Stevenson (“Eggheads of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your yolks.”), who was often criticized for being one himself.
Interestingly, Google users seem to think differently about professors (for those wondering if these results were influenced by my login, they weren’t: this was an incognito browser window).
Anyway, I hope this little etymological excursion shows what a professor does when she hears something idiotic: we brush aside the insult and instead we ask lots of questions, look up the answers, synthesize the results into a conclusion, maybe ask additional questions, cite our sources, then teach what we learned to others.