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What Does It Mean to Suffer Fools Gladly?

In the early 13th Century, a fool was a silly, stupid, and ignorant person. The word came down the linguistic ladder from the French word for madman, insane, and harebrained idiot. Today a fool is someone deficient in understanding, reason, and sense and so acts unwisely.  The Oxford English Dictionary takes a more stately approach, saying “A fool is a person whose behavior suggests a lack of intelligence, common sense, or good judgment.” Having to deal with fools makes most people frustrated, usually with a loss of patience and sometimes to the point of anger.

Most fools don’t think they are fools, which reminds me of legendary poker player Amarillo Slim, who liked to point out that “If you don’t know who the fool at the table is, it’s you.  

Most of us understand the word suffer to involve a state of pain, punishment, humiliation, and grief

But if we go back far enough, we discover it meant something altogether different and something much gentler.

While Jesus of Nazareth rested by the roadside, his disciples held a small group of children back, fearful they would annoy him

Jesus said they should step aside and allow the little children to come to him. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” he said. (King James Bible, Matthew 19:14). Back in those days, the word for allowing something was “suffer.” Allowing something to happen conjures for me an image of someone stepping aside, as would a big city hotel doorman.

So the word suffer, which once meant to gently allow, permit, and tolerate, has now come to mean something unpleasant that we must endure.

Suffer fools gladly

Few people other than teachers and clergy have the ability to cope with ineptitude cheerfully. Today the term suffer fools gladly is always used in the negative.

Doesn’t suffer fools gladly 

This negative statement refers to one who refuses to deal with ignorant people or tolerate foolish behavior. This is the version most of us know.

Later in the New Testament, we get this from I Corinthians 11:19: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves as wise.” New Testament scholars agree that Paul, the author, is being sarcastic. His message is that those who put up with fools are themselves fools.

New York Times writer David Brooks said to (or not) suffer fools gladly is an ambiguous compliment that “suggests that some people have trouble tolerating those who don’t meet their standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks.”

As with nearly every phrase, this one doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone

Robert Fulford calls it a malleable euphemism that doesn’t have a real shared definition. To understand why it’s so important to start with a shared definition, take a look at You Say Potato, from April 2018.

If you’re suffering but not gladly, many people will take that to mean you’re acting rudely

In some cases, this is rightfully so. Wouldn’t you get frustrated by and angry at people who are troublesome in their dealings because of their personal shortcomings. Don’t you get impatient with people you regard as unintelligent and unwise?

Some say to suffer fools gladly is to be kind, patient, and tolerant with fools who are annoying, stupid, or incompetent

That may work sometimes, but in situations where where competency, efficiency, and effectiveness are highly valued, people with high standards and expectations are typically unwilling to tolerate incompetence or put up with others they consider to be foolish, ignorant, and rude. They are also typically intolerant with those who waste time on trivial matters. The list of those who don’t suffer fools gladly is very long and includes more famous people than you can imagine. Those who value their time and energy have a right to expect direct and sensible behavior from others, don’t you think?


Once upon a time. I asked a colleague and friend for a written recommendation. He wrote a fine letter that included the phrase “David doesn’t suffer fools gladly.” True, but who does? If you tolerate, allow, or permit fools to interfere with important work, then what does that make you?



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