St John Karp

Ramblings of an Ornamental Hermit

An Idiot, an Imbecile and a Moron Walk Into a Bar…

Who is your favorite fool? And I don’t mean the paltry mob of politicians and talk show hosts we get nowadays. I mean the good, old-fashioned proper fools who spent all day popping in and out of Shakespeare plays, or else being whipped to bedlam and back in Bethlehem Royal Hospital. You will actually find quite a number of these characters, especially if you’ve spent any time looking at census records. Members of the household who might have suffered from any kind of mental disability were often classified as idiots or imbeciles. These words are insults now, but many of them used to have technical definitions that have faded into obscurity. Today, my friends, we define the idiots and the morons. Today, we wax etymological. To the dictionary!

Early technical definitions for the mentally disabled did not come from medicine, as you might expect. They came from law. Lawyers needed to have close understanding of their client’s state of mind to determine whether a will was valid or not. In 16th Century England, anything from homosexuality to suicide — even mild offences like libel — were enough to get your last will and testament stricken down in court. It was vital, then, to have a working definition of what mental disability was. They couldn’t get too technical, not on 16th Century medicine, but they came up with a reasonable definition for something they called idiocy: “An Idiot or a natural Fool is he, who, notwithstanding he be of lawful Age, yet he is so witless, that he cannot number Twenty, nor can tell what Age he is of, nor knoweth who is his Father or Mother, nor is able to answer any such easy Question.”1

But be warned, do not make the mistake of confusing an idiot with a lunatic. Even in the 16th Century they upheld a difference between someone who had a mental disability from birth and someone who developed mental illness later in life. “A lunatic, or person non compos mentis, or which is the same thing, a person of unsound mind, is one who has had understanding, but by disease, grief, or other accident, hath lost the use of his reason. A lunatic is, indeed, properly one that hath lucid intervals; sometimes enjoying his senses and sometimes not; and that, as was formerly supposed, frequently depending on the changes of the moon.”2 And herein lay the legal difference — while an idiot was prevented from making a last will and testament, “a Lunatic having lucida intervalla may, in the Time of his right Mind, make a Will and Executors.”3

A case was also made for the man who was “of mean Understanding, neither wise nor foolish, but indifferent, as it were, betwixt a wise Man and a Fool, yea, though he rather incline to the foolish sort, so that for his dull Capacity he might be termed Grossum caput, a Dunce; such an one is not prohibited to make a Testament: Unless he be yet more foolish, and so very simple and sottish, that he may easily be made to believe Things incredible or impossible; as that an Ass can fly, or that Trees did walk, Beasts and Birds could speak, as it is in Æsop’s Fables. For he that is so foolish cannot make a Testament, because he hath not so much Wit as a Child of Ten or Eleven Years old”4. We get some more detail here on what makes an idiot. Basically someone’s retarded if they think Bedknobs and Broomsticks is real. But they’ve bowled us a new googly — what is a dunce? This is a fun one because it isn’t a medical definition — it’s a deliberately insulting one. John Duns Scotus was a Christian theologian in the 13th Century who was so famous for his lofty and pedantic doctrine that he was known as the “Subtle Doctor” — and that by his creditors. His detractors thought his work was nothing but “a farrago of needless entities, and useless distinctions”. Because of this the name Duns or Dunce came to mean a hair-splitting pedant, a man “void of learning but full of Books” and, later, someone with no capacity for learning at all.5

The early legal definition of idiocy persisted for a long time, and you can see the same use of that language on all the US Census records from 1840 to 1880. However psychology and developmental studies became eminent fields of study in the early 20th Century, and that’s when medicine exerted a stronger influence on the definition of idiocy. H. H. Goddard published a wonderful paper called “Four Hundred Feeble-Minded Children Classified by the Binet Method” in the even more wonderfully named Journal of Psycho-Asthenics. Goddard divided his patients into three broad categories: people with a mental age of one or two were called idiots; people with a mental age of three to seven were called imbeciles; and the highest-functioning group were feeble-minded. Only Goddard went further than that. He proposed two new names for the feeble-minded. Either they should be called “proximate”, because they were the closest to being normal, or they should be named “morons” after the Greek word for foolish. That was the very first time the word “moron” entered the English language, and it has only gone from strength to strength since then.

The 1910s saw the rise of intelligence testing, along with the eugenics movement, and the introduction of the term “intelligence quotient” (IQ). Now that psychologists had a definite scale they could offer strict, numerical definitions for all our favorite mental disabilities. People with an IQ between 0 and 20 or 25 were classified as idiots; people with IQs between 20 or 25 and 50 were imbeciles; and people with IQs between 50 and 70 were morons. Morons were clearly the highest-functioning group in all cases, and ranked just below the dull-minded (who ranged from 70 to 90).6

Other common kinds of idiocy stemmed from more obvious physical disabilities, such as Down’s syndrome or dwarfism. The term “Mongolian” or “Mongoloid” has always been used to describe people with Down’s syndrome, but it has fallen out of use for its obviously offensive racial origin, “from a resemblance in facial characteristics to the Chinese physiognomy.”7 It was coined in 1899, which was much more recently than I had imagined, seeing as how the word could be slung around so readily in the 20th Century as an insult8. The term cretin was likewise coined for a very specific purpose, to classify the “idiots with goiters” who were indigenous to the Valais in Switzerland: “The species of idiots I have mentioned above, and who are deemed by many authors as peculiar to the Vallais, are called Cretins. Among these I also observed a kind of sensible gradation: namely, from those who, being totally deaf and dumb, and incapable of helping themselves, give no proof of their existence, but the mere animal sensations; to others, who are a little more animated, and possess some faint dawnings of reason.”9

The obvious pattern is that any terms adopted for mental disability soon get hijacked as insults. Even as recently as the 1990s people were still trying to dodge the stigma associated with medical terms like “spastic”. In recent years we have hit upon a solution: political correctness. By burying the terminology under flavorless phrases like “mental disability”, we have achieved good things like saving the sufferers of those conditions a lot of grief. Unfortunately we have also diminished our lexicon by robbing it of a rich source of colorful insults. I guess we’ll just have to get creative and come up with some new ones all on our own, you sock-nostriled, Yankee Doodle dingbat.


  1. Swinburne, Treatise, 79. 

  2. Willard, Treatise, 73. 

  3. Swinburne, Treatise, 80. 

  4. Ibid. 

  5. “dunce, n.”, OED

  6. Terman, The Measurement of Intelligence, 79. 

  7. Shuttleworth & Beach, System of Medicine, 236. 

  8. “Stop molesting us, you mongoloid. If you had any sense, you would be investigating dens like that Night of Joy in which my beloved mother and I were mistreated and robbed. I, unfortunately, was the prey of a vicious, depraved B-girl. In addition, the proprietress is a Nazi. We barely escaped with our lives. Go investigate that gang and let us alone, you homewrecker.” (Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980) 

  9. Coxe, “Account”, 92. Rather amazingly, Coxe also refers to a book that “compares [these Cretins] with the Blafards of the isthmus of Darien; a species of beings who resemble the white negroes.” The book is unfortunately in French, but what I can find out via Google Translate seems to imply that the “Negres blancs” might be albinos. I’d love to know more, but I can’t read French and in any case, it would probably be a whole article’s worth on its own. 

  • Coxe, W. “An Account of the Vallais, and of the Goitres and Idiots of that Country”. The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics and Literature For the Year 1779. London: J. Dodsley, 1780. II.89-93. Print.

  • Goddard, H. H. “Four Hundred Feeble-Minded Children Classified by the Binet Method”. Journal of Psycho-Asthenics XV.1-2 (1910): 17-30. Print.

  • Goodhart, James Frederic. The Diseases of Children. 6th ed. London: J. & A. Churchill, 1899. Print.

  • OED Online. September 2011. Oxford University Press. 1 October 2011 <>.

  • Shuttleworth, G. E & Beach, Fletcher. “Idiocy and Imbecility”. A System of Medicine by Many Writers VIII. Ed. Thomas Clifford Allbutt. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1901. 233-247. Print.

  • Swinburne, Henry. A Treatise of Testaments and Last Wills. 7th ed. Dublin: Elizabeth Lynch, 1793. Print.

  • Terman, Lewis M. The Measurement of Intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1916. Print.

  • Willard, John. A Treatise on the Law of Executors, Administrators and Guardians and of the Remedies By and Against Them in Surrogates’ Courts of the State of New York. Albany: William Gould, 1859. Print.