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The Idiot by Evert Larock

An idiot, dolt, dullard or (archaically) mome is a person perceived to be lacking intelligence, or someone who acts in a self-defeating or significantly counterproductive way. Along with the similar terms moron, imbecile, and cretin, the word archaically referred to the intellectually disabled, but have all since gained specialized meanings in modern times. An idiot is said to be idiotic, and to suffer from idiocy.



Idiot is a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs ("person lacking professional skill", "a private citizen", "individual"), from ἴδιος, idios ("private", "one's own").[1] In ancient Greece, people who were not capable of engaging in the public sphere were considered "idiotes", in contrast to the public citizen, or "polites"[2]. In Latin the word idiota ("ordinary person, layman") preceded the Late Latin meaning "uneducated or ignorant person".[3] Its modern meaning and form dates back to Middle English around the year 1300, from the Old French idiote ("uneducated or ignorant person"). The related word idiocy dates to 1487 and may have been analogously modeled on the words prophet[4] and prophecy.[5][6] The word has cognates in many other languages.

An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs.[7] Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education.[7] In Athenian democracy, idiots were born and citizens were made through education (although citizenship was also largely hereditary). "Idiot" originally referred to a "layman, person lacking professional skill". Declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis (city state), was considered dishonorable. "Idiots" were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters. Over time, the term "idiot" shifted away from its original connotation of selfishness and came to refer to individuals with overall bad judgment–individuals who are "stupid". According to the Bauer-Danker Lexicon, the noun ίδιωτής in ancient Greek meant "civilian" (ref Josephus Bell 2 178), "private citizen" (ref sb 3924 9 25), "private soldier as opposed to officer," (Polybius 1.69), "relatively unskilled, not clever," (Herodotus 2,81 and 7 199).[8] The military connotation in Bauer's definition stems from the fact that ancient Greek armies in the time of total war mobilized all male citizens (to the age of 50) to fight, and many of these citizens tended to fight poorly and ignorantly.

Disability and early classification and nomenclature

In 19th- and early 20th-century medicine and psychology, an "idiot" was a person with a very profound intellectual disability. In the early 1900s, Dr. Henry H. Goddard proposed a classification system for intellectual disability based on the Binet-Simon concept of mental age. Individuals with the lowest mental age level (less than three years) were identified as idiots; imbeciles had a mental age of three to seven years, and morons had a mental age of seven to ten years.[9] The term "idiot" was used to refer to people having an IQ below 30[citation needed][10][11] IQ, or intelligence quotient, was originally determined by dividing a person's mental age, as determined by standardized tests, by their actual age. The concept of mental age has fallen into disfavor, though, and IQ is now determined on the basis of statistical distributions.[12]

In the obsolete medical classification (ICD-9, 1977), these people were said to have "profound mental retardation" or "profound mental subnormality" with IQ under 20.[13] This term is not in use in the United Kingdom.

Regional law

United States

Until 2007, the California Penal Code Section 26 stated that "Idiots" were one of six types of people who are not capable of committing crimes. In 2007 the code was amended to read "persons who are mentally incapacitated."[14] In 2008, Iowa voters passed a measure replacing "idiot, or insane person" in the State's constitution with "person adjudged mentally incompetent."[15]

In several U.S. states, "idiots" do not have the right to vote:

  • Kentucky Section 145[16]
  • Mississippi Article 12, Section 241[17]
  • New Mexico Article VII, section 1[18]
  • Ohio Article V, Section 6[19]

The constitution of the state of Arkansas was amended in the general election of 2008 to, among other things, repeal a provision (Article 3, Section 5) which had until its repeal prohibited "idiots or insane persons" from voting.[20]

United Kingdom

"Idiots" are barred from voting in British parliamentary elections.[21]

In literature

A few authors have used "idiot" characters in novels, plays and poetry. Often these characters are used to highlight or indicate something else (allegory). Examples of such usage are William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and William Wordsworth's The Idiot Boy. Idiot characters in literature are often confused with or subsumed within mad or lunatic characters. The most common imbrication between these two categories of mental impairment occurs in the polemic surrounding Edmund from William Shakespeare's King Lear. In Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, the idiocy of the main character, Prince Lev Nikolaievich Myshkin, is attributed more to his honesty, trustfulness, kindness, and humility, than to a lack of intellectual ability. Nietzsche claimed, in his The Antichrist, that Jesus was an idiot. This resulted from his description of Jesus as having an aversion toward the material world.[22]


  1. ^ Liddell-Scott-Jones A Greek-English Lexicon, entries for ἰδιώτης and ἴδιος.
  2. ^ Anthamatten, Eric (2017-06-12). "Trump and the True Meaning of 'Idiot'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-06-26. 
  3. ^ Words, entry idiota.
  4. ^, entry prophet
  5. ^, entry prophecy
  6. ^, entry idiot
  7. ^ a b Parker, Walter C. (v86 n5 p344 Jan 2005). "Teaching Against Idiocy", Bloomington: Phi Delta Kappan.
  8. ^ Bauer W. "English Greek Lexicon"
  9. ^ Zaretsky, Herbert H.; Richter, Edwin F.; Eisenberg, Myron G. (2005), Medical aspects of disability: a handbook for the rehabilitation professional (third edition, illustrated ed.), Springer Publishing Company, p. 346, ISBN 978-0-8261-7973-9 .
  10. ^ Rapley, Mark (2004), The Social Construction of Intellectual Disability, Cambridge University Press, p. 32, ISBN 978-0-521-00529-6 .
  11. ^ Cruz, Isagani A.; Quaison, Camilo D., Correct Choice of Words' : English Grammar Series for Filipino Lawyers (2003 ed.), Rex Bookstore, Inc., pp. 444–445, ISBN 978-971-23-3686-7 .
  12. ^ Vibeke Grover Aukrust (2011). Learning and Cognition. Elsevier. pp. 95–96. ISBN 978-0-12-381438-8. 
  13. ^ World Health Organisation (1977). Manual of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases, Injuries, and Causes of Death (PDF). Vol. 1. Jeneva. p. 213. 
  14. ^ "Penal Code section 25-29". State of California. Retrieved 2007-09-21. 
  15. ^ Sharples, Tiffany (5 November 2008). "Ballot Initiatives: No to Gay Marriage, Anti-Abortion Measures". Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  16. ^ Kentucky Section 145
  17. ^ Mississippi Constitution of the State of Mississippi See Article 12, Section 241
  18. ^ New Mexico Constitution, Article VII, section 1(subscription required)
  19. ^ Ohio Constitution, Article V, Section 6
  20. ^ Arkansas Ballot Measures : An Amendment Concerning Voting, Qualifications of Voters and Election Officers, and the Time of Holding General Elections (Amendment 1) : For the November 4, 2008 General Election,
  21. ^ "Voting system: Who can vote?". Vote 2001. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). 16 February 2001. Retrieved 13 September 2012. 
  22. ^ Nietzsche, Friedrich (1895). The Antichrist. To make a hero of Jesus! And even more, what a misunderstanding is the word 'genius'! Our whole concept, our cultural concept, of 'spirit' has no meaning whatever in the world in which Jesus lives. Spoken with the precision of a physiologist, even an entirely different word would be yet more fitting here—the word idiot. 
    (§ 29, partially quoted here, contains three words that were suppressed by Nietzsche's sister when she published The Antichrist in 1895. The words are: 'das Wort Idiot,' translated here as 'the word idiot'. They were not made public until 1931, by Josef Hofmiller. H.L. Mencken's 1920 translation does not contain these words.)

External links

  • Dictionary.Reference.Com "Middle English, ignorant person, from Old French idiote (modern French idiot), from Latin idiota, from Greek idiotès, private person, layman, from idios, own, private."
  • "idiot" at the Online Etymology Dictionary