Read a Czech translation of this post, prepared by Vera!
Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.
The word “cretin” is often used to describe someone of limited intelligence, often with the added connotation of being irritating. “That cretin didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!” “That Bobby in accounting is such a mouthbreathing cretin!”
“Cretin” is an ableist word. It’s one which shouldn’t be used by people who consider themselves allies to people with disabilities. Many of the synonyms the dictionary so helpfully provides (idiot, moron, mongoloid, imbecile, fool, half-wit for example), are also ableist.
Let’s talk about the word origins of “cretin” first, shall we? The first recorded use of the word dates to the late 1700s, when it was integrated into English from an Alpine French word, crestin, in the sense of “a dwarfed and deformed idiot.” (Incidentally, who wants to play “spot the ableist language” in that dictionary entry?) The word appears to have its origins in the Vulgate Latin word for “Christian,” which may be, depending on which authority you believe, a reference to the suffering of Christ, the humanity of people with disabilities, or a fetishization of innocence, the idea being that people with disabilities can’t sin, and are therefore Christlike. Other authorities suggest that this etymology is wrong, and that the word may be derived from the same root for “creature.” No matter which etymology you prefer, the roots of this word are clearly rooted in ableist thought.
It’s not really clear which medical condition the Alpine French were describing, but English speakers used it to refer to people with hypothyroidism or iodine deficiencies, two problems which were apparently common in the French Alps. Cretinism, as it came to be known, was associated by members of the public with low intelligence, and as a result, people started using the word to refer to people whom they thought were unintelligent, even when those individuals did not have the medical problems the word was originally coined to describe.
By the 20th century, the medical community was abandoning this word to describe an actual medical condition, since it had acquired such a pejorative connotation, although the word can sometimes be seen in some medical texts. The continued use of “cretin” in English speaks to the ingrained ableism in the language, and also to ideas about intelligence and elitism which are very common in many people. The judgment of intelligence as a value which can be quantified, and the idea that people with lesser degrees of “intelligence” under objective testing are unworthy, are distressingly common. (They’re going to come up again and again in this series, too.)
So, what can you use instead of “cretin”?
Well, the first thing you need to do is examine the word the setting is used in. Let’s take the two examples above.
In the first example, our speaker is bemoaning the actions of a careless mechanic who failed to do a job properly. Surely, in this case, words such as “thoughtless,” “careless,” or perhaps “poorly trained” would be a better fit. “That thoughtless mechanic didn’t change the brake pads properly, and now I have to resurface the rotors!”
In the second example, the context is a bit unclear. Not knowing the speaker, we don’t know if Bob from accounting works slowly, is a bit pedantic when it comes to processing reimbursement claims, or what. It becomes necessary to examine what it is about Bob which so infuriates the speaker. That examination may uncover other words which would be not only more appropriate, but more accurate.