The Stupid Person’s Idea of the Clever Person

Speaker: Julie Burchill? Elizabeth Bowen? Ezra Klein? Paul Krugman? Andrew Sullivan? Hermione Eyre? William Donaldson?

Target: Stephen Fry? Aldous Huxley? Dick Armey? Newt Gingrich?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I heard an uncomplimentary quip applied to an intellectual. Here are three versions:

  • The stupid person’s idea of a clever person
  • The dumb person’s idea of a smart person
  • The stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like

Would you please help me to trace this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1936 Irish author Elizabeth Bowen published a review in the London periodical “The Spectator” of a book by Aldous Huxley. She began her piece with a pointed remark about Huxley: 1

Mr. Huxley has been the alarming young man for a long time, a sort of perpetual clever nephew who can be relied on to flutter the lunch-party.

Interestingly, Bowen employed the saying under analysis, but she did not imply that Huxley was stupid; instead, she reiterated that he was clever. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

He is at once the truly clever person and the stupid person’s idea of the clever person; he is expected to be relentless, to administer intellectual shocks.

Many others have used similar constructs, but Elizabeth Bowen’s remark is currently the earliest known instance.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 2002 the Canadian writer Will Ferguson employed a variant in his novel “Happiness”: 2

Jack laughed, a laugh as coarse as canvas—as coarse as canvas torn ragged in two. “Ah, yes, The Celestine Prophecy. A stupid person’s idea of a clever book.

The 2004 reference “Women’s Wicked Wisdom: From Mary Shelley to Courtney Love” credited Bowen with a slightly altered statement. The word “the” was changed to “a”: 3

The stupid person’s idea of a clever person.
Elizabeth Bowen on Aldous Huxley

In 2005 an article in “The Independent” of London applied the template to a famous musical composer: 4

“Beethoven” is even a stupid person’s idea of a great composer, so those who, stupidly, do not consider themselves stupid announce that their favourite composer is another.

In 2005 the irreverent U.K. oriented reference “The Dictionary of National Celebrity” by Hermione Eyre and William Donaldson appeared. Some entries were reprinted in “The Independent” including the following item about a popular English comedian: 5

Fry, Stephen (b.1960). Stupid person’s idea of a clever person.

In 2010 Paul Krugman, the economist and “New York Times” columnist, shared the following: 6

Ezra Klein once described Dick Armey thus: “He’s like a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like.”

Also in 2010 commentator Julie Burchill wrote the following in “The Independent”:
7

My husband claims that it was I who coined the line about Stephen Fry that he is “a stupid person’s idea of a clever person”. And if I weren’t a sober person’s idea of a booze-addled person, I might be more useful in remembering whether this is true or not. Whatever, it’s pretty damn good.

In 2011 commentator Andrew Sullivan wrote a post with the following headline: 8

Newt Gingrich Is A Dumb Person’s Idea Of A Smart Person

In 2012 English journalist and commentator Peter Hitchens applied the saying to Stephen Fry while acknowledging “The Dictionary of National Celebrity”, but he replaced “clever” with “intelligent”: 9

I have cheerfully (and on as many occasions as possible) repeated what I believe to be the apt and accurate summary of him in the ‘Dictionary of National Celebrity’ which forms the headline to this article – ‘A stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like’.

In conclusion, based on current evidence this expression was first crafted by Elizabeth Bowen who applied it to Aldous Huxley in 1936. She also said he was a “truly clever person”.

Image Notes: Tarot card images from Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to the anonymous individual whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1936 December 11, The Spectator, Mr. Huxley’s Essays by Elizabeth Bowen (Review of The Olive Tree and Other Essays by Aldous Huxley), Quote Page 24, London, England. (Online archive at archive.spectator.co.uk; accessed January 3, 2018)
  2. 2002, Happiness by Will Ferguson, Quote Page 273, (First published under the title Generica by Penguin Books Canada in 2001) Canongate Books Ltd., Edinburgh, Scotland. (Verified with scans)
  3. 2004, Women’s Wicked Wisdom: From Mary Shelley to Courtney Love by Michelle Lovric, Section: Revenge & Other Sweet Things, Quote Page 245, Chicago Review Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  4. 2005 June 12, The Independent, Article: Thank you, thank you, for the happiest week of my life – ABCRADIO, Author: Nicholas Lezard, Quote Page 17, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)
  5. 2005 November 14, The Independent, Section: Life & Culture, Article: Don’t know your Patsy Palmer from your Paris Hilton? Then let Hermione Eyre and William Donaldson present their no-nonsense guide to the (in) famous, Author: Hermione Eyre and William Donaldson, London, England. (NewsBank Access World News)
  6. 2010 February 27, New York Times (Online), Column: The Conscience of a Liberal, Article: You’re So Vain, Author: Paul Krugman, New York. (ProQuest)
  7. 2010 November 3, The Independent, Article: Gay man lays into women, fine. But when it’s the other way around…, Author: Julie Burchill, London, England. (Online at independent.co.uk; accessed January 3, 208) link
  8. Internet Archive Wayback Machine, Website Address: andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com, Snapshot Date: January 8, 2012, Date on Article: December 12, 2011. Title of Article: Newt Gingrich Is A Dumb Person’s Idea Of A Smart Person, Author of Article: Andrew Sullivan. (Accessed web.archive.org on January 5, 2018) link
  9. 2012 April 23, The Daily Mail, Section: Peter Hitchens’s Blog, Article: Stephen Fry – A Stupid Person’s idea of What an Intelligent Person is Like, Author: Christopher Hitchens, London, England. (Accessed hitchensblog.mailonsunday.co.uk on January 5, 2018) link