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.
- 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) ↩