Wednesday, 3 June 2015

'You stupid idiots!' - The Origins of 7 Words of Insult

All this week I have been looking at names – I’ve looked at eponyms (words that derive from real people), the origins or some Christian names and yesterday, I looked at where the days of the week get their names from. Today, continuing with the name theme, I am looking at the origins of seven generic words which can all be used in a derogatory way to insult someone. We use these words generally without thinking because, as is so often the case in English, word meanings become less derogatory, definitions change or are forgotten with words becoming more generically used.  

The first of these words is ‘moron’ which has lost its original, more derisive meaning. We use ‘moron’ today to describe someone who appears foolish or stupid. However, it used to be a medical term for an adult who had a much younger mental age than their actual age; a mental age of about 8-12 years. It comes from Greek ‘moros’ meaning ‘foolish’.

‘Idiot’ comes via Greek ‘idiotes’ meaning ‘private person, layman or ignorant person’. Specifically, the word was applied to anyone who didn’t actively partake in public life – a loner if you will. Over time, the loner definition fell away but the sense of being ignorant remained. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ‘idiot’ was adopted by the psychological and medical professions for someone who had a severe intellectual disability. Whereas ‘morons’ had a mental age of between 8-12 years, idiots had a mental age of less than three years (with ‘imbeciles’ having a mental age between 3-7 years). People who scored lower than 30 in an IQ test were called ‘idiots’. As with ‘moron’, ‘idiot’ has become much more generic.

Today, a ‘cretin’ refers to a stupid person. The OED says the word is still a term of abuse. As with ‘idiot’ and ‘moron’ it used to mean someone who had a physical or mental disability, usually the result of congenital thyroid deficiency. The word comes from Swiss-French ‘crestin’ meaning ‘Christian’ meaning ‘human creature’, used in this sense compassionately to mean ‘poor fellow’ – a  reminder that people with disabilities are still people. Moreover, thyroid problems were common in the Alps due to the lack of essential iodine in the soil which may explain why the word originated from Swiss-French.

‘Dunce’ derives from the Middle Ages. The theologian and scholar John Duns Scotus was an influential figure who wrote university textbooks. His followers were called ‘Scotists’. However, from the sixteenth century, the views of Scotists became unpopular and they were ridiculed and were called ‘Dunsmen’ or ‘dunses’ meaning someone who was slow at learning  because the Scotists were reluctant to adapt to a new way of thinking. Over time, the spelling changed to our ‘dunce’, keeping the definition that it described someone who was slow at learning. Today, we can use the term in a less derogatory way, perhaps in a more comic or mocking way, such as people wearing dunce caps.

‘Stupid’ used to have multiple meanings: it used to mean ‘stunned’ or ‘amazed’. Our current meaning which we use to refer to someone who is slow-witted or foolish, or something that is pointless or low of worth, came about around the same time and became the main meaning. ‘Stupid’ is also the root of ‘stupendous’ and ‘stupor’.

Finally, ‘fool’ comes from Latin ‘follis’, meaning ‘empty headed person’ or ‘windbag’. Fools took on a more comic and affectionate role early on – Shakespeare uses eccentric fool characters in his plays for comic effect, such as Jacques in As You Like It. Perhaps we remain sympathetic toward Rodney, Del and Uncle Albert for never making a million too, in Only Fools and Horses.


A selection of insults that have a darker, more derogatory history, most of which having lost their original definition.

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