Tag Archives: idiot
- 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.
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.”