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.
Following on yesterday’s profile of “cretin,” I thought I’d tackle “idiot” this morning. This is another word which is commonly used to denote low intelligence, and it’s also a word which many people are unaware is ableist in nature. “Idiot” is also closely tied to ideas about intellectual worth, and attitudes that people with intelligence which does not meet an arbitrary standard are somehow lesser human beings.
“Idiot” is a very old word. It’s derived from Latin and Greek roots for “ordinary person,” which came to be used to refer to unskilled labourers, and eventually to people who were ignorant or who lacked education. Interestingly, the word also has roots in lack of civic participation; in Ancient Greece, participation in society and the democratic process was a virtue, and people who did not engage with society were regarded as suspect. This attitude is mirrored in some branches of the modern activist movement; people who don’t engage in the “right kind” of activism are sometimes referred to as “idiots,” for example.
This word appears to have entered the English language around 1300, in reference to people who lacked reasoning skills and were poorly, if at all, educated. In the 1800s, “idiot” acquired a new nuance, as it started to be used as a diagnostic term in reference to people with severe developmental delays. An “idiot” medically speaking was someone with a “mental age level” of less than three years, or an IQ under 30. It was, quite literally, a diagnosis of mental inferiority, as decided by the medical community. I would like to point out, for the record, that people with this diagnosis were subjected to indignities like institutionalization and forcible sterilization, with no less a figure than Oliver Wendell Holmes once saying “three generations of idiots is enough” when defending the forcible sterilization of Carrie Buck in Buck v. Bell in 1927.
And before you leap to say “well, that’s old,” I would like to point out that the word “idiot” was used in a diagnostic and medical context in my home state of California as recently as 2007, when the penal code was finally amended to remove this word from the law books. This illustrates that “idiot” had a dual and widely accepted usage through the 19th and much of the 20th century; laypeople used it to refer to anyone they believed was lacking intelligence, while members of the medical community used it as a diagnostic term.
So, we can see that “idiot” is ableist from several perspectives. It’s yet another word used to denigrate lack of intelligence, and it’s a word with a history as a specific diagnostic term. So, what can we use as an alternative to “idiot”?
Many of the ableist words which reference “inferior intelligence” are actually used in settings when people want to say that someone is being thoughtless, reckless, irresponsible, or rude. So, those are all good words to use as alternatives to “idiot.” One of the things about exploring ableist language is that it forces us to think about the actual meaning of a sentence; when you find yourself wanting to refer to someone as an “idiot” or something as “idiotic,” pause and think about the meaning of what you are trying to say.
“Idiot” is also used in rhetoric to talk about someone who is uninformed about an issue or someone who is unaware of the complexities of a topic. In this sense, a value judgment is being made about someone’s intelligence on the basis of the fact that this person is not familiar with the fine and nuanced details of everything on Earth. It’s worth noting that we all came into this world with no knowledge of anything, and that all of us were uninformed about topics we now consider ourselves knowledgeable about at some point. In this case, rather than using “idiot,” a better word choice might simply be “uninformed.”