6

The historical core meaning of the word "idiot" was a person with a low IQ to a developmentally disabled degree.

This sense of the word is now used infrequently as it is considered rude. Merriam-Webster calls this meaning "dated" and "offensive", and Google calls this sense of the word "archaic". Instead, the word "idiot" is now used most often in one of a couple of more restrictive senses.

One, which I think is the older restrictive sense, refers to someone who is acting unwisely when they really should know better, even if they have a generally ordinary or high IQ level. Merriam-Webster gives the current primary definition as "a foolish or stupid person", the first part of which fits this restrictive sense, and the second part of which harkens back to the dated sense.

The other, which I think is a more recent restrictive sense and probably derived from the first restrictive sense, refers more specifically in some contexts to someone who is is oblivious to their own romantic feelings or to the romantic feelings of someone (usually a friend) who is in love with them.

I have a couple questions about this:

  1. When did these more restrictive senses of the word "idiot" emerge, respectively, and when did they become more common than the now dated sense of the word?

  2. Is there a word for the process of a secondary meaning of a word becoming a more common way that a word is used than its original and core meaning?

6
  • 5
    You're not quite right about the "historical meaning". Originally (12th century) the borrowing from French simply meant an uneducated, ignorant person. According to the full OED, the extension to stupid person, mentally deficient person isn't recorded until two centuries later. Jan 24 at 12:32
  • 18
    I've never heard of "idiot" having a specific oblivious-to-romance meaning beyond idiot being used to just mean somebody who doesn't notice important information in general; can you support that at all? Jan 24 at 15:00
  • 1
    You're saying it used to mean retard and now it means romantically clumsy? I'm not following. #2 is a separate stand alone question.
    – Mazura
    Jan 24 at 16:10
  • 1
    What about Dostoevsky? Jan 25 at 5:03
  • 3
    Nope. The word 'idiot' historically means someone not participating in the political life of the polis. Jan 25 at 11:01

5 Answers 5

15

The historical core meaning of the word "idiot" was a person with a low IQ to a developmentally disabled degree

This is not so.

The other, which I think is a more recent restrictive sense and probably derived from the first restrictive sense, refers more specifically in some contexts to someone who is is oblivious to their own romantic feelings or to the romantic feelings of someone (usually a friend) who is in love with them.

I find this remarkable. Do you have some support for this?

The earliest entry in the OED shows that an idiot was merely someone who was generally ignorant, either by circumstance, or a lack of specialised learning:

A. n. 1.a. A person without learning; an ignorant, uneducated person; a simple or ordinary person. Now archaic and rare. [With reference to the Apostles (see quots. c1384, c1450) ultimately after ancient Greek ἰδιώτης in its specific sense ‘ignorant, layman’(so in Acts 4:13, the passage translated in quot. c1384).]

c1384 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(2)) (1850) Deeds iv. 13 Forsoth thei seynge the stedfastnesse of Petre and John, founden that thei weren men with oute lettris, and idiotis

[a1425 L.V. men vnlettrid, and lewid men; L. homines..sine litteris et idiotæ], wondriden.

We can see a weakening and specialisation of the word a very short while later:

b. †(a) A person without professional training or skill (obsolete); (b) a private (as opposed to a public) person, an inward-looking person (now rare).

a1400 tr. Lanfranc Sci. Cirurgie (Ashm.) (1894) 69 (MED) But þe modir of þat child sente for a lewde leche [L. layco]..Þanne a fisician..blamede þe modir & hir freendis þat þei hadden left counseil for þilke idiotis biheeste.

These meaning (informed by context) lasted until the late 17th/early 18th century. (There is a 20th century example but we need not bother with this.)

However, it did not take long for “idiot” to become a classification at law and medicine.

2.a. Chiefly Law and Psychiatry. A person so profoundly disabled in mental function or intellect as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct; spec. a person permanently so affected, as distinguished from one with a temporary severe mental illness. Now historical in technical use.By the older legal authorities in England an idiot was defined as a person congenitally deficient in reasoning powers (cf. quot. 1590), and this remained for a long time the common implication of the term.

c1425 Bk. Found. St. Bartholomew's (1923) 13 (MED) He made and feyned hym-self vnwyse..and owtward pretendid the cheyr of an ydiotte.

1590 H. Swinburne Briefe Treat. Test. & Willes ii. f. 39 An Idiote, or a naturall foole is he, who notwithstanding he bee of lawfull age, yet he is so witlesse, that hee can not number to twentie, nor can tell what age he is of, nor knoweth who is his father, or mother, nor is able to answer to any such easie question.

The 1590 quote is significant as it marks a milestone in the treatment of the mentally disadvantaged, and separates those of low IQ and those who were mentally ill.

The 1774 Madhouse Act did not mention idiots, it referred to “lunatics”, which included anyone who wasn’t in their right mind for any reason.

The 1833 Chancery Lunatics Act did expand the categories

"An Act to diminish the inconvenience and expense of Commissions in the Nature of Writs De Lunatico inquirendo; and to provide for the better care and treatment of idiots, lunatics, and persons of unsound mind found such by inquisition".

These terms were then formal terms.

This legal/medical meaning of “Idiot” was superseded by other terms (Educationally Subnormal, Subnormal, and Severely Subnormal) in the UK under the Mental Health Act 1959, and the use of “idiot” as a category was thereby ended.

Finally we have the chief current meaning:

2 b. A person who speaks or acts in what the speaker considers an irrational way, or with extreme stupidity or foolishness.

c1480 (▸a1400) St. Theodora 148 in W. M. Metcalfe Legends Saints Sc. Dial. (1896) II. 103 Wenand I ware sic a ydiot, þat þu suld wit my priuete.

2002 J. Thompson Wide Blue Yonder ii. 121 Now she'd ruined everything by being an idiot.

From the above, and in broad terms, we can see that “Idiot” started off in the 14th century as meaning “the ordinary people”, and although this lasted until the 17th/18th century (but seems to have diminished in use as time went on) almost immediately "idiot" took on the meaning of someone who acted in a stupid manner at any time.

The meaning of “a stupid person/ a “fool” had been there since more or less the introduction of the word in the 14th century, and this has become the popular, and only current meaning.

(1) when did these more restrictive senses of the word "idiot" emerge, respectively, and when did they become more common than the now dated sense of the word?

The medical and legal categorisation of the mentally feeble, as “idiots” seem to have started, at least in the UK, in the late 16th century, and was formalised by the the 1833 Chancery Lunatics Act when Mental Health started to come to the fore (for various reasons). The categorisation then continued until 1959.

(2) is there a word for the process of a secondary meaning of a word becoming a more common way that a word is used than its original and core meaning?

I suppose it is a transition or evolution but this does not apply to the word “idiot” where, to all intents and purposes, the meanings have run parallel.

8
  • 1
    I am afraid that if I think someone is patronising me, I may say 'Do you think I am a cretin?'. I might substitute 'imbecile'. Jan 23 at 22:52
  • "Do you have some support for this?" This accounts for probably 50% of the usage of the word in modern writing that I read, typically in romance and comedy fiction.
    – ohwilleke
    Jan 24 at 17:55
  • 4
    @ohwilleke: Do you have any examples you could share?
    – Greybeard
    Jan 24 at 18:00
  • 5
    @ohwilleke If you find it in romance fiction, it's probably just a special case of the general meaning. I don't think the writers intend to distinguish between "generally stupid" and "romantically stupid", and might even go so far as to actually conflate the two
    – No Name
    Jan 25 at 0:31
  • 2
    @ohwilleke note that this restrictive, romantic sense has not found its way into a dictionary, which in English is a descriptive authority - that is, one that says "this is how it is", not "this is how it should be". If you find a dictionary citation (I'll even accept urban dictionary in this case), then I'll be convinced
    – No Name
    Jan 25 at 0:35
10

According to the OED, both senses date to c1400-1480, so I don't think we can called either one "new." We do the same thing at the other end of the intelligence spectrum: your friend comes up with a very good idea or solution and you exclaim "You're a genius!" when you know they are an average Joe or Jane.

idiot (n.)

A person without learning; an ignorant, uneducated person; a simple or ordinary person. Now archaic and rare. c1384

Chiefly Law and Psychiatry. A person so profoundly disabled in mental function or intellect as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct; spec. a person permanently so affected, as distinguished from one with a temporary severe mental illness. Now historical in technical use. c1400

A person who speaks or acts in what the speaker considers an irrational way, or with extreme stupidity or foolishness. c1480 (OED)

7

To answer your second question, a formal linguistic term for words changing meaning over time is semantic drift. A more specific term for when a word originally starts to be used in place of a more offensive one because it is more polite, is euphemization. When people keep looking for new euphemisms because whatever word we currently use for some concept always picks up negative connotations—like how psychiatrists replaced “idiot” with “profoundly retarded,” and then replaced the word “retarded”—that is informally called a euphemism treadmill.

2
  • Bit of an aside, but do you know what word has replaced "retarded?"
    – Michael W.
    Jan 24 at 18:45
  • @MichaelW. I’ve heard more than one. The Arc, formerly known as the Association for Retarded Citizens, has a page on all the name changes it’s gone through in its history, It now prefers the terms intellectually disabled or developmentally disabled. I’ve heard some people also rejecting the term “disabled” and preferring “challenged.” Many schools say “with special needs.”
    – Davislor
    Jan 24 at 21:22
6

An answer to the first part of the first question ((probably) older "restrictive sense") ; there is no trace of the second "restrictive" sense in the dictionaries.

From the information available in the SOED, which provides data on the period of validity of the various acceptations of word forms this specialiszation of the word "idiot" to the meaning "foolish person" goes back to Late Middle English, that is "1350-1469", and this means a very long time ago.

(SOED) idiot 1 b A stupid person, a fool, a blockhead. *colloq. LME

The medical term, now obsolete, originates in Middle English (according to the same source), that is "1150-1349".

Some answer to the second question

There is a term for the process that consists in the change in the meaning of a word, and that is "semantic shift".

(Wikipedia) Semantic change (also semantic shift, semantic progression, semantic development, or semantic drift) is a form of language change regarding the evolution of word usage—usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. In diachronic (or historical) linguistics, semantic change is a change in one of the meanings of a word. Every word has a variety of senses and connotations, which can be added, removed, or altered over time, often to the extent that cognates across space and time have very different meanings. The study of semantic change can be seen as part of etymology, onomasiology, semasiology, and semantics.

0

Relevant semantic drift example: around here, ‘you idiot’ has become almost an affectionate term, roughly synonymous with ‘larrikin’.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.