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.