Idiots, Imbeciles, and Morons

By Maeve Maddox

In a recent state election Arkansas voters were asked to alter the following constitutional phrasing:

“No idiot or insane person shall be entitled to the privileges of an elector.”

Legislators objected that the language was archaic and disrespectful. (Not to mention the fact that the law has never prevented idiots from voting.)

As the current Arkansas state constitution dates from 1874, I decided to find out what the drafters meant by the word “idiot.”

Idiot derives from a Latin word that referred to an ignorant, uneducated person. The word came into English from an Old French word with the same meaning. By 1300 idiot had acquired the meaning of “a person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning.”

For a time, idiot was used by doctors to refer to a specific degree of mental retardation:

A person of profound mental retardation having a mental age below three years and generally being unable to learn connected speech or guard against common dangers.

The term came to be regarded as offensive and is no longer used as a medical classification.

Two other words once used alongside idiot as medical classifications are imbecile and moron.

Imbecile derives from a Latin adjective having the sense of “weak” and entered English from an Old French word with the same meaning. For a time it was used to refer to physical weakness. For example “an imbecile person” might be someone unable to walk without crutches. The first recorded use of imbecile as a noun is 1802. Its medical definition was

A person of moderate to severe mental retardation having a mental age of from three to seven years and generally being capable of some degree of communication and performance of simple tasks under supervision.

Moron comes from a Greek word meaning “stupid.” Its meaning in the now disused system of medical classification was:

a feebleminded person or mental defective with a potential mental age of between eight and twelve years who is capable of doing routine work under supervision

In current English usage all three words are perceived as insults. Apparently idiot is the least offensive of the three since a publishing empire employs the word in its titles with great success.

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23 Responses to “Idiots, Imbeciles, and Morons”

  • Paul Russell

    When I first read the phrase I thought the voters were being asked to correct the grammar. Shouldn’t it be “No idiot nor insane person…”

    –paul

  • John M.

    Actually, the word “idiot” is derived from the Greek words ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs (“person lacking professional skill,” “a private citizen,” “individual”), from ἴδιος, idios (“private,” “one’s own”)

    It was often used in the context of a person that lived outside of the mainstream – someone who lived in their own world; often associated with hermits, shepherds, vagabonds and the like – even laymen and tradesmen. In this regard, the person could be any level of intelligence. In Greek society “idiots” were considered unreliable and selfish in terms of political participation and citizenship.

    Over time – as many of these people were lacking in intelligence – the term shifted to describe someone who was mentally deficient.

    Source:

    Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon

    idiōtēs:

    http://tinyurl.com/6mnkzq

    idios:

    http://tinyurl.com/5w23ho

    I love your weblog. It is very helpful and edifying. Thanks.

  • John M.

    I should amend my statement:

    Over time – as many of these people were (perceived to be) lacking in intelligence – the term shifted to describe someone who was (considered to be) mentally deficient.

    We should be careful about branding someone so. Some of these folks can surprise with their savvy and cleverness!

  • letter samples

    I have been going through your blog for a long time. It’s truly good for all of us. Good going and keep it up.

  • Maeve

    John,
    Thanks for the additional etymological info.

  • Maeve

    Paul,
    I don’t think the “nor” would work in this context. The intent is to deny the vote to a single category of incompetent voters that includes idiots and insane persons.

    That’s my view. So far I can’t find any printed authority that addresses this construction.

  • Charlie

    Moving up the ladder, based on the medical definitions, one would start out an idiot, improving to an imbecile, and further improving to a moron. If further mental improvement took place, what would that be?

    Just wondering . . . Words are so much fun!

  • Maeve

    Charlie,
    I guess the next level would be Charlie Gordon–and then one would start going down again. (“Flowers for Algernon,” by Daniel Keyes)

  • John M.

    You’re welcome.

    If memory serves me right, I first read about that in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum.

  • PreciseEdit

    FYI: In Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, the publisher Belbo discusses cretens, fools, morons, and lunatics and notes that all people can be classified as one of these four types. I am assuming that all people cannot be classified as an idiot, imbecile, or moron based on the definitions above.

    Here’s the title of an unwritable book: The Idiot’s Guide to Umberto Eco.

    Wasn’t Charlie Gordon originally classified by his doctors/researchers as an idiot because his IQ was 68? (I haven’t read that book for several years.)

    Great discussion. To echo (Eco?) Charlie (the poster above, not Charlie Gordon): Words are so much fun.

  • Maeve

    Indeed, words are fun. (That just made me remember something Charile Gordon wrote in his diary when he was introduced to punctuation:
    Punctuation, is, fun!

    Btw, I haven’t finished with words that denote lack of intelligence. Post in the works that will include cretin, fool, etc.

  • Charlie

    Maeve,
    I’ll watch for it! Next subject for too much intelligence?

  • Rich G.

    The fine state of Iowa has decided to give idiots the right to vote as well. It seems our House of Representatives was useless without amending the constitution so they could vote after all. 🙂

  • Paul Russell

    Maeve, thanks for your clarification. You are saying that because the idiots and insane are grouped, “or” is correct.

    So would you agree that if there was a comma, “nor” would be the correct word? … i.e. “No idiot, nor insane person…”

    Tkx

    –paul

  • Maeve

    Paul,
    I don’t see why a comma would be wanted in that context.

    When it comes down to it, I don’t think that “no” demands a “nor” the way “neither” does.

  • Jeff

    It has been quite some time since looking this up, so I can’t easily reference a source. For that I apologize. Regardless, here is what was noted on a Post-It:

    Idiocy – lowest, functional level of a two year old or less, IQ < 25

    Imbeciles – functional level of two to seven year old, IQ 25-50

    Moron – IQ 50-70

    Mild retardation – IQ 70-90

  • Peter

    As long as they’re allowed on the ballot, why shouldn’t they be allowed to vote too? 😉

  • Paul Russell

    Maeve wrote: ‘When it comes down to it, I don’t think that “no” demands a “nor” the way “neither” does.’

    I just thought that since “neither” and “no” are negative, “nor” would have been correct. Oh well, no big deal…

    –paul

  • Maeve

    Peter,
    False logic.

    Felons are not allowed to vote, but they can run for the Senate.

  • Nathan

    This comment thread is great. I now want to re-read “Flowers for Algernon,” and pick up “Foucalt’s Pendulum” as I’d been meaning to.

    Danke.

    And Maeve, did Ted Stevens vote for himself on November 4th? What a funny political system we’re part of. I wonder what percentage of the popular electorate are ‘idiots’ by the classic definition.

  • Ena

    For me idiot is the most common words used to insult people. While imbecile is meant for people with brain damage like cerebral palsy.

  • maria

    i’m in need of pictures

  • Al

    Despite my reservations at the time about Arkansas changing its constitution to allow idiots and crazy people to vote, they still can’t. They’re disqualified in the registration process.

    Need an example of an idiot? Start with Ema — who is oblivious to the fact that sufferers of cerebral palsy have a physical disability and are not mentally impaired.

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