Ableist Word Profile: Moron

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • 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

Today’s word: moron! As in “what a moron, I can’t believe he forgot to change the filters,” or “she’s such a moron,” or “we had the most moronic discussion in class today.” Moron is another in the long list of ableist words which have their roots in the idea that certain types of intellectual ability are more valuable than others, and, as a bonus, it has a history in a diagnostic context as well. Today, people usually use it when they want to insult someone who lacks knowledge or who is behaving in a way which they deem “stupid.”

Again, it’s interesting to note that this word often comes up in contexts in which the person being insulted lacks knowledge. Someone who hasn’t done the reading for class is called a moron. Someone who hasn’t graduated high school is called a moron. Someone who is not as intimately familiar with an issue as other people are is called a moron. It gets to this idea that knowledge=intelligence.

Fun fact: This word entered English in the early 20th century, from the Greek for “foolish” or “dull.” It was almost immediately appropriated as a diagnostic term by, I kid you not, the American Association for the Study of the Feeble-Minded, used to refer to adults with a “mental age” between eight and 12 and an IQ of 51-70. (Hey, did you know that the IQ test is deeply flawed because it was not actually designed to measure “intelligence,” despite the name?) This put them, incidentally, above “idiots” (a “mental age” below six) and “imbeciles” (“mental ages” between six and nine).

By 1922, “moron” was being used as an insult, and it was subsequently dropped from diagnostic use. We use terms like “developmental disability” or “intellectual disability” today to refer to people who formerly would have been diagnosed as “morons.”

Henry H. Goddard, who kindly translated the Binet test into English so that it could be abused to reify intelligence, introduced “moron” into diagnostic use. He also happened to think that people who fell under this classification should be institutionalized, sterilized, and effectively erased from society. (Incidentally, Goddard wasn’t a total jerk, he was also one of the people who pushed for special education in American schools, providing access to education for people who were previously deemed unschoolable.)

Soooo…knowing about the origins of this word, do you still want to  use it to describe human beings? As an insult? I thought not. Every time people use words like “moron,” “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “feebleminded,” they are hearkening back to an alarmingly recent time in which people were diagnostically labeled with these terms, and that labeling was used to justify heinous abuses. That may not be the case anymore, but the legacy lingers, and so do the social attitudes which supported the belief that people with disabilities were not fit for society.

“Moron” is most definitely ableist, not only because of its history in a diagnostic context, but because of the implications it carries about valuing certain brains over others. This, again, is a word which is tricky to eradicate from one’s word usage because of the ways in which it is used. People use “moron” because they want to insult someone’s intelligence. To stop using this word, you first have to rethink the way you think about “intelligence,” and think about what you actually want to say when you use this word.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

5 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Moron

  1. I like these posts about intelligence – instead of calling somebody “stupid” or an “idiot” – I prefer, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”* Because that is the issue, nah?

    The person doesn’t have the information, or is not recalling it “correctly”.

    *But that uses “know” – so maybe, “I don’t think you have all the information.”, “I see it differently because of…” or (as with my sister) “What the expletive are you talking about?”

    And I can’t help it, I gotta say it, What a [redacted per comments policy]. (Oh man, no carrots.) (I have a serious case of the sillies today.)

  2. This has been a troubling issue to me ever since I became aware of this community, and also in reference to my own personal experience—I’m an Aspie who was diagnosed this past March, and realizing that I’m out of the norm when it comes to mental configuration has made me far more sensitive to words that could be construed as offensive. The thing is, I’m also a linguistic major (read: massive word nerd) who finds it very hard to start phasing out words from her vocabulary! So I’ve been wondering for days about what a good and non-offensive insult could be to be leveled at those who deserve it—you see, I’d never insult anyone with a developmental disability, the people whom I’ve called some of the words you’ve mentioned about are by and large the willfully ignorant and deliberately closed-minded, who never fail to drive me up a wall. The best I could come up with was “asinine”—I don’t think any donkeys would object!

  3. I find, Cat, that the more detailed a description is in particulars the better it gets across. Calling someone willfully ignorant and deliberately close-minded works just fine (and to me, is more emotionally satisfying than staying with the shorter words like asinine. Since you also like words working for a more detailed description would probably help with the phasing out, instead of just trying to replace the problem words.

  4. That’s a very good point, A.W.. (Oh dear, I never know whether to put that extra period—how on earth do I signify the end of a sentence without making it look like an ellipsis?) Normally I do go into greater detail, and the fact that I felt the need to have a more “stinging” insult is kind of a sad commentary on society that people often feel the need for such things in order to feel that their point has gotten across…*exasperated sigh*

    May I recommend “special” for the next Ableist Word Profile? A dear NT friend of mine is a major ally of mine and of AS issues in general, yet she still uses it as an insult, which drives me up the wall. Also, this isn’t strictly an Ableist Word Profile issue, but it would be excellent if FWD/Forward could at some point do an article about the evils of able-bodied/minded people feeling the need to “go easy” on disabled people of any stripe in criticism/competition/whatever since the “normal” people assume that the disabled could in no way, shape or form be their equal in anything—I HATE THAT and I assume many, many other people, disabled or not, feel that way as well.

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