More Fool Me.

Matt sent me the following request for information:

I’m writing to ask you about the phrase “more fool me.”
I recently used it in a translation, only to have it changed by the editor to “More the fool me.”
I was going to ask him to change it back, but I did a quick Google search and found that “More the fool me” is completely acceptable (Google actually claims to have more hits for it, although of course those figures aren’t reliable).
Just out of curiosity, which one do you use? Do any of your references have anything to say about which is original etc.?

I responded:

Huh! I don’t recall using it myself, but I think of it as “the more fool me.” I find the version without “the” completely acceptable, and “more the fool me” completely weird — I don’t remember ever encountering it, and it astonishes me that it’s possibly the most used (according to Our Lord Google).

I just checked Partridge’s Dictionary of Catch Phrases, but he doesn’t include it (even though it’s exactly the sort of thing the book focuses on). So I turn to the Varied Reader: is it “the more fool me,” “more the fool me,” or just “more fool me”? And does anybody know anything about the history of the expression?

Comments

  1. David L says:

    To add to the confusion, my inclination is for “more fool I,” and a little googling comes up with this:

    “I’ve a wife and children,” he went on, “and I had been ten years in
    the Company, always expecting the next command—more fool I.”

    Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim

    Naturally I give great weight to Conrad’s opinion of idiomatic English.

  2. Damn, you’re right — I forgot about “more fool I,” and now I’m not sure which sounds more correct to me!

  3. I had only ever heard it as “more the fool I”. Not “me” and not “More fool.”

  4. Martin says:

    Shakespeare sez, in The Taming of the Shrew:

    BIANCA: The more fool you, for laying on my duty.

    And in As You Like It:

    TOUCHSTONE: Ay, now am I in Arden, the more fool I. When I was at home I was in a better place, but travelers must be content.

  5. I don’t think I’ve ever heard or said any of these.

  6. J.W. Brewer says:

    All four variants of “[the] more fool [me/I]” sound cromulent to me (and now self-consciousness is messing up any intuitions about which I would use most readily myself), but sticking the “the” in between “more” and “fool” sounds totally weird.

  7. Exactly! And yet it’s popular!

  8. My initial reaction was that anything but “more fool me” is inconceivable; I would have regarded (a) “more fool I” and (b) “the more fool me/I” as hypercorrections. I still maintain (c) “more the fool me/I” is Just Plain Wrong. Google NGrams refutes me as regards (a) decisively and (b) somewhat.

  9. It may be popular because, if you un-invert this inverted clause, and add back the omitted copula, then you get the natural sounding: “I am more the fool (for doing such and such)”

    “I am the more fool”, “I am more fool” etc sound less modern.

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    And here’s the thing. “More fool me” is already objectively weird, in the sense it does not fit an ordinary syntactic pattern I would use, or expect others to use, in ordinary speech. So either (a) it fits some alternative pattern that falls within the scope of my not-entirely-conscious native-speaker sense of “poetic license” (where there are still rules, and some deviations from normal syntax are okay and others aren’t), or (b) I’m just habituated to it as a fixed phrase I’ve been exposed to sufficiently over my lifetime-to-date. But I clearly haven’t had sufficient exposure to the “more the fool” variant (which is not to rule out *some* exposure) to be habituated to it that way, nor does flow smoothly within my intuitive sense of poetic license. But obviously there are other Anglophones out there who must differ on either (a) or (b) or both.

  11. Dropping the “the” seems of a piece with our modern telegraphic English. Because time saving.

    If unprompted, I think I would have said the more fool I, but that’s guessing because necessarily we’ve been prompted. I might have used either, depending.

    Contrast this with the phenomenon of piling on prepositions back in the day. Where our grand fathers beat someone, our fathers beat up someone, we then beat up on someone.

    What our sons do, I’ve no idea. My wife and I have only a daughter.

  12. J.W. Brewer says:

    To Simon’s point, I gotta say “I am more the fool for doing X” does not sound to me like a sentence a native speaker of English (or at least AmEng, to be fair) would naturally produce, at least absent something very specific in the immediately-prior discourse setting it up. “I am more of a fool” would be be the idiomatic thing I would expect. Even “more of the fool” would be better, in a context where there was an ongoing debate over which participant in a given situation had played the role of “the fool.”

  13. All the versions mentioned so far sound fine to me. All I can say about my own usage is that I would definitely use “me” rather than “I.”

  14. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    I’m not if I’ve ever felt inclined to say any of them, but if I did I’d almost certainly say “More fool me”. That’s the one I’ve heard.

  15. I’m willing to accept correction from Shakespeare; if I ever happen to use it, I’ll try and switch from “more the fool I” to “the more fool I.”

  16. ə de vivre says:

    Cool. I’ve never heard any variation of the phrase, all sound equally ungrammatical, and its meaning is opaque to me (aside from having something to do with acting foolish). That doesn’t happen too often.

  17. I don’t think I have ever used this expression myself. I am familiar with (the) more fool me/you/him/her (for doing sth.) from literary English. It’s a time-honoured, archaic idiom. In Middle English, muchel (OE miċel) still had the adjectival sense of ‘great’ and could be used with nouns — often, though not exclusively with “fool” (all examples below are from the Middle English Dictionary):

    Cniþt, þou art mochel fol. (Layamon’s Brut)

    The comparative and superlative forms were more ‘greater’ and most ‘greatest’:

    He were a greet fool that wolde kisse the mouth of a brennynge ouene..And moore fooles ben they that kissen in vileynye. (Chaucer, The Parson’s Tale)

    Most fool I am of men. (Wycliffe’s Bible).

    In Modern English, only the comparative construction survived, and about the 18th c. its use became restricted to modifyng fool (and not e.g. knave, shrew etc.). Already in Elizabethan English more was felt to be adverbial (‘to a greater degree’) rather than adjectival, hence occasional variants like more a fool you, all the more fool you and the somewhat aberrant more the fool you.

  18. Greg Pandatshang says:

    In my mind, “more fool you” is an invariant fossil, like “methinks”. Therefore, nothing that does the same thing in the first person sounds entirely cromulent. If I had to treat it as intelligible English grammar, I would figure it’s along the lines of an elided copula, e.g. “Eerie was the day, and dark the night”. In that case, the last word is definitely a subject, so it should be “more … I”. I would tend to favour “more the fool I”, which would fit a pattern like “Ever more the heroine was she, and more the fool I.” But really I would just rephrase and not try to bend “more fool you” into this shape.

  19. Adrian Sie says:

    More fool me, more fool you. Don’t know why, but those are the only versions I would use (UK/Scotland)

  20. In Modern English, only the comparative construction survived, and about the 18th c. its use became restricted to modifyng fool (and not e.g. knave, shrew etc.).

    Your comment told me everything I wanted to know about this construction! I hereby dub thee Książę Piotr Gąsiorowski.

  21. (You’ll have to work it out with Sir JCass as to who gets precedence at the castle’s feasting board.)

  22. Książę Piotr Gąsiorowski

    Just don’t say it like a Russian, or the dubbing may become a drubbing.

  23. Marja Erwin says:

    “And yet it’s popular!”

    Where?

  24. Google: “(Google actually claims to have more hits for it, although of course those figures aren’t reliable).”

  25. Another vote for more fool me. The more fool me sounds acceptable to me,
    (the) more fool I sounds like something only a prescriptivist would produce, and more the fool me/I sounds straight-up ungrammatical.

  26. I just thought of another variation: “More’s the fool me.”

  27. Here is how they did it in the 12th c. (Thomas Asbridge, The greatest knight):

    The dubbing might be followed by one final act – the ‘collée’ – a form of ritualised blow to the body that could vary from a light, almost genteel, tap on the shoulder, to a forceful cuff to the head. Its origins and meaning remain obscure, one theory suggesting that the strike was supposed to remind a warrior of his duties, another arguing that this symbolised the last blow a knight would receive without retaliation. It would be a century before the ‘collée’ was typically delivered to the shoulder with the flat of a sword blade – the classic image of ‘dubbing’, now immortalised in modern imagination and still enacted by the English monarchy when conferring a knighthood.

    I like this ancient, no-nonsense variant of the ceremony — I mean a good blow on the ear. When they started tapping the candidate gently with the flat of the sword instead, Camelot became a silly place.

  28. By the way, there’s another trace of this older use of more in a fixed expression: (the) more’s the pity (originally = “the greater is the pity”)

  29. Marja Erwin says:

    I’ve never heard any of these versions.

    Google results saying one version is more common than another version doesn’t mean that “it” –presumably all of these versions– “‘s popular!”

    The Sumatran rhinoceros is more common than the woolly rhonoceros, but neither one is common.

    I’m familiar with more’s the pity, though.

  30. I’ve never heard any of these versions.

    Heck, Stephen Fry has written an autobiography in three volumes, and Vol. III is entitled More fool me: A memoir.

  31. Does the the in the more fool me descend from the instrumental þy, like in the more the merrier?

  32. Yes, it’s the same the. I think (though it’s only a guess) that the stressed (and therefore oblique) personal pronoun was added parenthetically, referring to the otherwise unexpressed subject: (the) more fool, (I mean) me, for trusting them. Logically, if the pronoun is plural, the noun should be plural as well: more fools them. But I’ve often seen more fool them, at any rate in British English.

  33. Sumatran rhinos are pretty woolly themselves. They are by far the most impressive thing at the Cincinnati Zoo.

  34. I think (though it’s only a guess) that the stressed (and therefore oblique) personal pronoun was added parenthetically, referring to the otherwise unexpressed subject

    Or possibly the change from the more fool I to the more fool me parallels that from It is I to It’s me, i.e. expresses the same dispreference for nominative pronouns in non-subject positions.

  35. That’s what I really meant. Such a disjunctive personal pronoun is always stressed, which is why the usual proclitic form doesn’t sound right.

  36. John Roth says:

    After this interesting exchange, I will just add one more data point: originally “the more fool” sounded correct while “more the fool” sounded weird. Saying it a few times seems to be rubbing the weird off, though. It may be that the use of more as an adjective in “the more fool” is simply ungrammatical and only sounds correct because it’s the way I’ve always heard it.

    In any case, I seriously doubt that I’d ever use it, either in conversation or writing.

  37. We learned* this simple rhyme in school:

    Fool me once, shame on you
    Fool me twice, that makes two(2)
    By the time the count is three(3)
    If I still trust you, more fool me.
    (There’s no such thing as “more fool I”,
    he added with a weary sigh.)

  38. David L says:

    I’m sorry to say, my dear old Squiffers,
    that on the last point Conrad differs

  39. David Marjanović says:

    “To knight” in German: zum Ritter schlagen, with “beat/hit” in the same construction that’s used with “appoint” and the like.

  40. I’m sorry to say, my dear old Squiffers,
    that on the last point Conrad differs

    Who are you going to trust, a great novelist or a native speaker?

    (Oh. Fine.)

  41. “To knight” in German: zum Ritter schlagen, with “beat/hit” in the same construction that’s used with “appoint” and the like

    Exactly. Someone got the etymology of German Geschlecht and Polish szlachta wrong (or at least imprecise) here:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Szlachta#Etymology

  42. Partridge does mention “more fool you” in his “Dictionary of Slang” (7th ed.), identifying it as colloquial by 1834. So, another vote for no “the.” Calling the other person the fool eliminates the I/me problem!

  43. Owlmirror says:

    Contrast this with the phenomenon of piling on prepositions back in the day. Where our grand fathers beat someone, our fathers beat up someone, we then beat up on someone.
     
    What our sons do, I’ve no idea.

    You’ve never head the phrase “beat all up on”?

    My wife and I have only a daughter.

    Gender does not preclude aggression.

  44. Owlmirror says:

    Speaking of aggression. . .

    The dubbing might be followed by one final act – the ‘collée’ – a form of ritualised blow to the body that could vary from a light, almost genteel, tap on the shoulder, to a forceful cuff to the head. Its origins and meaning remain obscure, one theory suggesting that the strike was supposed to remind a warrior of his duties

    Huh!

    I was immediately reminded of the scenes in the film “Kingdom of Heaven”… Here’s a quote.

    Be without fear in the face of your enemies. Be brave and upright, that God may love thee. Speak the truth always, even if it leads to your death. Safeguard the helpless and do no wrong; that is your oath. [Slaps Balian] And that is so you remember it. Rise a knight

    (there’s a parallel scene later, where Balian knightslaps someone else with the same or similar wording)

    It never occurred to me until now that that slap was literally supposed to be a dubbing.

  45. Owlmirror says:

    On more fool(ishness):

    Given the slightly archaic feel of the term, I wondered if there were any hits on more archaic grammar. Well, there aren’t many.

    “more fool ye”
    358 Ghits

    “more fool thee”
    83 Ghits

    “more fool thou”
    3,020 Ghits

    But those thousands of hits appear to be multiple copies of one book:

    Wager, W. The longer thou livest the more fool thou art. 1568.

    (It appears to be some sort of play — a comedy, it says)

  46. There’ s always a more fool.

  47. I have to correct myself. Deprecatory nouns other than “fool” could still be used in this expression in the 1870s c. See George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Finale):

    Ben and Letty Garth, who were uncle and aunt before they were well in their teens, disputed much as to whether nephews or nieces were more desirable; Ben contending that it was clear girls were good for less than boys, else they would not be always in petticoats, which showed how little they were meant for; whereupon Letty, who argued much from books, got angry in replying that God made coats of skins for both Adam and Eve alike — also it occurred to her that in the East the men too wore petticoats. But this latter argument, obscuring the majesty of the former, was one too many, for Ben answered contemptuously, “The more spooneys they!” and immediately appealed to his mother whether boys were not better than girls.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    Never occurred to me that Geschlecht might be related to schlagen. It sort of has to be, though…

  49. NED has senses 1,2,3 of “more” respectively as comparatives of “great”, “much”, “many”

    the non-obsolete subsenses of 1 are
    * 1(g) “with subs of quality, condition, aetion, and the like” — obsolete except where merged with sense 2 and “more’s the pity”
    * 1(h) “qualifying the designation of a person” — obsolete except “the more fool (you)” [sic].

    Dunno what OED2 or OED3 say.

  50. @Piotr Gąsiorowski: That Eliot quote is great just for the use of “spooneys.”

  51. So reading this thread earwormed me with “Martin said to his man / Fie, man fie / Martin said to his man / Who’s the fool now?”

    So I underwent my usual treatment for earworms, and went to listen to lots of YouTube versions (Maddy Prior, Steeleye Span, Roberts & Barrand, various Canadians and Americans).

    Didn’t help. Still have it.

    Now what?

  52. furthermore NED has Similar senses 1,2,3 for “most”, with sense 1 obsolete except in “for the most part”.

  53. David Marjanović says:

    Now what?

    Try to get another earworm instead.

  54. Well, I decided to try to re-acquire “Martin” on the grounds that 16C boffo is better than 20C pseudo-pirate.

    Then had both playing in horrible conflict at the same time (though fortunately in the same key, as I sing all songs in the key of D in my head).

    Eventually this faded away and all is currently well.

  55. David Marjanović says:

    at the same time

    Whoa. That’s a level of multitasking I didn’t know existed.

    I’m curious what keys I spontaneously use; I don’t have absolute pitch.

  56. The Lord StoOdin could have have three earworms at once.

  57. I don’t have absolute pitch.

    I don’t either, but I have accurate relative pitch up to semitones, so I checked on an electronic keyboard by singing “Martin” to myself (which begins with its keynote) and trying various keys until the pitch matched. I seem to remember that when I tried this test decades ago, I was singing in B flat, but I’m not too sure.

    three earworms at once

    Or, for all we know, 101 earworms.

Speak Your Mind

*