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I think "idiot" and "dummy" have the same meaning and they both mean someone stupid. But I came across this sentence, "I might be an idiot, but I'm no dummy." and now I'm wondering what's the difference between these two words in a sentence like this.

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    In a sentence like this there is nothing wrong with the person's mental abilities, but sometimes friends or spouses or siblings call eachother idiot, because they have made a wrong decision, for example. But that is between people who have known eachother for a while. This sentence means something like: Even though I do stupid things I am not stupid. – anouk May 16 at 10:24
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    In my experience, it means, "My intelligence is limited, but I'm using it." A quite unintelligent person might say it to reject an offer to, say, sell him diamonds (with the seller implying they are "hot", hence the venue) -- which con has successfully landed rather intelligent people with very expensive zircons. – Mary May 20 at 22:01
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Although idiot and dummy do commonly have the same meaning, the use of idiot in this joking phrase draws particular attention to a specific sense of idiot.


From Merriam-Webster's definition of idiot:

1 : a foolish or stupid person

It's the use of foolish in the definition that's relevant.


From Merriam-Webster's definition of dummy:

1 c : a stupid person
// He's no dummy.
// She loves you, you dummy.


In short, the sentence in the question is actually saying this:

I might be an idiot, but I'm no dummy.

→ I might be foolish, but I'm not stupid.  OR
→ I might act unwisely, but I'm not unintelligent.

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    I don't get your logic. The definition of both words contains the word "stupid". How can you assert that the sentence means two different kinds of stupid without further context? – user103227 May 18 at 10:53
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    @FrankTownend That's why it's a joke—because of the confusion. And I'm not asserting that they mean two different things; I've provided dictionary definitions that show they very subtly mean different things. One means stupid, but the other means foolish or stupid. The context for the difference is the joke itself. – Jason Bassford May 18 at 14:37
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Idiot is more formal; dummy is mainly US and informal. They both mean the same thing and each can cover a range of levels of stupidity. The speaker is implying that a 'dummy' is more stupid than an 'idiot', but it could equally have been the other way around. The clue is the 'I might be X but I am not Y' construction, where Y is implied to be more extreme than X, e.g. I might be crazy but I am not a lunatic! 'Crazy and 'a lunatic' could be the other way around and the intended meaning would be the same.

To be noted: nowadays, using terms like 'idiot', 'dummy', 'cretin', etc, to discuss mental or intellectual impairment is considered cruel and deplored by many people in Western societies.

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This is clearly a joke or a retort to an insult.

The word "dummy" carries with it the connotation of the verb "dummy" (to trick by pretending to pass a ball), so the additional connotation of dummy, that idiot doesn't have, is "a person who is easy to deceive".

So "I may be an idiot, but I'm no dummy" suggests that the person is saying that he can't be tricked:

If you don't buy this car, you would be an idiot.

I may be an idiot, but I'm no dummy! I can see that the engine is leaking oil. This car would cost too much to repair.

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    Any comment from downvoters? – James K May 16 at 20:54
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    You discuss an assumed meaning of the complete sentence, but you don't discuss the difference between the two terms, which is the OP's question. – user103227 May 18 at 10:49
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"Dummy" is apparently derived from "dumb", which can mean "stupid", in turn meaning "having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense".

"Idiot", although now used as a pejorative term, was once an actual medical term used in psychology for someone deemed to have an IQ between 0-25 ("Imbecile" meant an IQ of 26–50, and "moron" an IQ of 51–70, both of which are also used today as insults).

Of the two insults, "dummy" is the more playful of the two and probably less offensive, although "dumb" was also once used as a term for those unable to speak due to deafness and is now considered insulting or rude in that context, so I would still be careful about using it.

I can't really explain your quote "I may be an idiot but I'm no dummy" without the wider context, but it is most likely a joke, suggesting that the speaker is so stupid they don't know that both words mean stupid.

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  • 'Dumb' just means 'unable to speak' for any reason, temporary or permanent. No direct connection with deafness. – Michael Harvey May 16 at 16:19
  • @MichaelHarvey That is true, and my point wasn't to say that was the only meaning, but rather the reason why the term is now somewhat taboo. As a signer I know the deaf community very well and "deaf and dumb" is a much-loathed term. In fact, my anwer contains at least two very different meanings of "dumb" so I don't know why would would think that. – Astralbee May 18 at 10:47

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