23 responses to “Ableist Word Profile: Idiot”

  1. evil fizz

    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.

    I’m not necessarily persuaded here, because I think part of the intent behind a word like idiot is to tar the entire person and not just an act or behavior in question. The focus on the individual, rather than the behavior, is fully deliberate.

    “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.”

    When using idiot to talk about ignorance, again, I think the insult is deliberate. Yes, there are times when the speaker wants to refer to lack of information on a particular topic, but I’m not necessarily convinced that those are the majority of cases. “Don’t be an idiot,” carries a level of invective that “Don’t be thoughtless/foolish” doesn’t. Of course, this is part of the point: ableist language insults in ways that non-ableist language doesn’t because disability is framed as less than.

  2. Sweet Machine

    Let me say first of all that I am thoroughly excited about this blog.

    Thank you for doing this series of posts in particular. I believe my brother would have been classified as a “moron” if he had been born a generation earlier. It’s really shocking to delve into the medical terminology for intellectual disabilities and realize that it was so insulting so recently.
    .-= Sweet Machine´s last blog ..Something reminded me of this recently… =-.

  3. saranga

    thank you for doing this. i will be following this blog and this series in particular with interest. I do use ablist language in my everyday speech, but it is something I am trying to change.

  4. Charlotte

    Thank you so much for posting this. This is really helpful because it really helps me to understand the concept of ableist language, which is something I’ve started to try to work on.

  5. were_duck

    This post has been added to a link roundup! Thank you.
    .-= were_duck´s last blog ..What "cis" means =-.

  6. Legible Susan

    Here via the access_fandom linkspam. This series is a fab ides, and I must subscribe to this blog.

  7. Legible Susan

    I meant “a fab idea” (seems I can’t type today)

  8. Femmeopticon


    I really, really like the work you all are doing here. Excellent! Would you consider doing a profile on “retarded”? I get really, really tired of hearing that as a pejorative.

    .-= Femmeopticon´s last blog ..New Blog–Check it out! =-.

  9. EGhead

    I’m very much into socio-linguistics, and I’ve thought about the use of ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ for a while. Which is not to say that I know better than you do, but simply that I’m coming from a place of careful consideration. I have never once heard either ‘idiot’ or ‘moron’ used in a diagnostic context except in discussions of historical terms for certain diseases/illnesses/conditions. You cite the example in CA law, but I’m not sure that supports what you’re saying. In fact, I think it supports the opposite– that ‘idiot’ is no longer a term used to describe any sort of condition. And that’s why it’s no longer offensive; no one uses it to disparage people for having any actual disability (except in the same sense that ‘stupid’ is disparaging when used against the cognitively disabled.) At this point, I think the original meanings of ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ have simply become part of their etymologies. Plenty of words have offensive roots, ‘sinister’ being the best-known example. But as long as the general public a) is not aware that the word used to have a different, specific meaning (and I’d say this is the case for ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’) or b) uses the word in a way completely detached from the original meaning (e.g. ‘sinister’), then it isn’t offensive.

    There are plenty of words that fall in the gray area between those that have unknown or seemingly unrelated etymologies and those that are clearly offensive. I’d place ‘lame’ in this category; it seems to be going the way of ‘idiot’ in medical terminology but is still definitely widely known to refer to an actual disability. In contrast, ‘gyp,’ is definitely still offensive because, even though most people don’t realize its its origin, it IS simply a shortened version of a name still used to describe an ethnic group. And that name– unlike ‘lame’– really does not seem to be declining in usage.

    I do realize, though, that these are subjective analyses, and since I’m not part of the population affected by these words, it should not be up to me to decide if they’re offensive. That’s why I’m now definitely willing to give up ‘cretin,’ and why I’m going to continue to consider removing ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ from my vocabulary. The difference with the latter two, of course, is that they’ve become SO entrenched in everyone’s daily language that I’m unsure it’s worth fighting. It may just be better to make sure no one uses them in their original context. Yes, that defense is entirely based in pragmatism.

    Which is why I’m still considering…

    And for whatever this is worth: I’m pretty severely psychologically disabled. I’m also a big fan of hyperbole, and ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ seem to be some of the most common hyperbolic expressions in my personal vocabulary… as well as the vocab of the general public. I’m still totally conflicted about their usage. At this point, I’ve at least decided that using ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ to refer to a person instead of his/her actions (or another noun altogether) is unacceptable– cause, you know, some of us actually ARE crazy. And you can’t always tell who. Gah, but of course on the other hand….

    That’s enough from me. I really enjoy the blog, though.

  10. Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.

    Eek. Guilty as charged. I have used that word, I am sure, within the last week.

    I am interested in genealogy, and see the word on census sheets all the time. Interestingly, as a diagnostic category, it makes me wince every time, as do similar terms such as “feeble-minded”. But for some reason, it never occurred to me that I was being offensive every time I used it to describe an intelligent person with whom I happened to vehemently disagree at the moment.

    Sorry. I shall go forth and attempt to sin no more. Seriously.

    A long term feminist (dating back to the ’70s), I am new to disability activism. This is mind-blowing stuff for me, and I thank you for taking the time and putting in the effort to educate all us newbies.
    .-= Virginia S. Wood, Psy.D.´s last blog ..9/11 still killing =-.

  11. Amy

    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.

    I’m incredibly guilty of this. As an atheist and anarchist, I’ve often referred to religious conservatives as `idiots’ to indicate a lack of intelligence that lets them cling to beliefs that are a) silly and b) inflict pain on others. Of course, it’s not meant to imply disability, but it does, and I’m still looking for words to replace the ones with enough vehemence that gets my insult across. It’s human nature to insult, we just have to make sure the insult doesn’t carry a history of degradation and discrimation forward.

  12. almandite

    I’m a bit confused here. The origins of “idiot” seem to have to do with ignorance and inferiority, like many insults, but not intellectual disability. It seems to have been co-opted to refer to intellectual disability, and recently there has been some thought that, oh hey wait a minute, perhaps an insult shouldn’t be used as a diagnostic label. It’s an insult, but I’m not sold that it’s intrinsically ableist.

    (And I’m just a little teenage girl. So be gentle when you explain how wrong I am?)

  13. almandite

    I think you’re being very black-and-white, when there’s a lot of gray here.

    Or maybe it’s that I’m just looking at the facts differently from you. I see the word as having strong classist origins and evolving to refer to an uneducated person, with all the implications of inferiority that an insult has. But just because something has implications of inferiority doesn’t mean it’s ableist. Even when it has to do with education. Maybe even when it has to do with intelligence. “Idiot” isn’t about intellectual disability. It’s about acting thoughtless, stupid, uneducated. That can exist separately from disability. The problem arises when you (general you) confound the two concepts and equate intellectual disability with stupidity, thoughtlessness, lack of education, or anything else providing basis for an insult. When you start to refer to disabled people as “idiots”.

    The real problem, as I see it, isn’t that a diagnostic label became used as an insult. It’s that an insult was chosen as a diagnostic label. *That* is as ableist as can be!

    I’m not sure what I’m trying to say. It’s just that I read the narrative you provide, and I come away with a very different interpretation. And the conclusion I see is, as EGhead says above, to make sure that an insult is no longer a diagnostic label.

    It’s just a different interpretation of the facts. I wanted to put it out there.

    (And on a completely different note, I love this blog! It’s new and interesting and challenging. Y’all are wonderful.)

  14. Anna

    I see the word as having strong classist origins and evolving to refer to an uneducated person, with all the implications of inferiority that an insult has.

    Why do you see it that way? And why can’t it be both?

    Consider that something can have more than one aspect to it. Yes, it grew out of class-issues as well. But our primary discussion here is about disability.

  15. almandite

    I have attempted to explain why I see it that way. I see it that way because I read the description on the etymology of the word, and it refers to uneducated “common” people. I’m not sure what else to say about that.

    It could be both. I just don’t see that in this case. I don’t see an as well in the equation. You can be dismissive of another person’s intellectual contributions without being ableist. It’s insulting, but all insults are not intrinsically ableist.

    I do consider that something can have more than one aspect to it, and as an Autistic woman who is always being yelled at for thinking in black-and-white, I get quite annoyed when it’s assumed that I haven’t considered all the angels on an issue.

    I feel like the response to this word, from the disability rights group, is “this word at one time had connotations of disability! it must be ableist!”. That’s very black and white. It might be more useful to look at why and when and how those connotations were assigned, and what that said about society’s attitudes (hint: ableist as all get out) and if the situation has changed at all in terms of how the word is used.

    Words aren’t intrinsically evil things. I’m interested in how they are used, what meanings they acquire and how, and what saying them means today for everyone involved, and I’m not convinced that to use this particular word is to support a history of abuses. It might, say, support an attitude in which one’s worth is determined by how one thinks, which might be considered ableist. Then I would need to think about the context in which the word is used, to determine if this is the case.

  16. Anna

    almandite, it’s clear that you don’t agree with us. That’s okay. Not everyone agrees on everything, and we certainly don’t speak for every person with a disability, or the entire disability rights movement. We just speak for ourselves, and even individual contributors to the site mostly speak for themselves, with the support of others.

    Kaninchenzero has previously written on the ableist connotations of judging people on “how one thinks”. I also think some of your objections have previously been addressed in this post by meloukhia on objections to the AWP.

    I understand that you don’t agree with us, and that’s okay, but I don’t see a lot of value in either of us continuing to go back and forth on it.

    I know you have another comment in moderation, but to my quick glance it looks like it violates some of our commenting policies, including our request for comments to be under a certain word length.

  17. almandite

    I’m certainly apologetic for any offenses–I wasn’t aware that there were comment guidelines, I should have checked.

    Actually, my specific objections aren’t addressed by either post. I don’t want to be difficult. I just…want to understand, you know? I don’t want to be too liberal for most places, but too conservative for this one. I want to fit in, you know?

    I do enjoy many other posts here, which is probably why I don’t want to stop talking about the ones where I disagree, because why can’t the whole community make sense to me?

    But I can stop, if that’s what you want. Thank you for letting air my viewpoint.

  18. Kaitlyn

    I should have said this at the latest AWP, but this is the most recent one commented on – I love these. I am a word geek, and I like going back – what was this word 100 years ago? What language did it come from?

    And the good thing about the AWP is that it makes you think more. Instead of just saying, “You’re an idiot.” and dismissing them and their argument right there, you can try for the real reason. Though I have been lost for the appropriate word at times and have undoubtedly said, “You are so… so… ugh/augh!” *hands in the air*

    What gets me angry is when people refuse to respect your wishes. I have said a million thousand times not to use “gay” as a pejorative. If you must, don’t do it around me. When I asked my sister and her friend if they meant that car (or whatever) was homosexual, they started saying, “That’s so homosexual.” So if I pointed out the roots of her insults, she might start using them.

    And I am all for creative insults, especially old fashioned sounding ones! “You ruffian!” (From Om Shanti Om) “Oh fish!”

  19. Alison

    thanks so much for this post. I was reading another blog which mentioned that idiot is ableist and thought, “damn.. most of the time I can think of substitutes for ableist words but I’m at a loss here.”

    so I google “ableist idiot” and the first hit is this post, and now I have substitutes. thanks! when I say “idiot” I usually mean something like thoughtless or uninformed so thank you for pointing out those substitutes.

    overall, this blog is amazing. I usually don’t comment but I wanted to share some gratitude for this post.