The terms idiot, imbecile, and moron are generally associated with notions of intelligence, having served both scientific and mundane roles across cultural-historical contexts and in many different countries. This study seeks to explore the degree to which the use of these terms is an everyday part of our lives and to map out the meanings being attached to them.
This study reports on their current usage in two arenas: within 29 academic papers published from 2016 to 2021, reporting on interviews or observations undertaken in educational contexts; and within 134 articles from four English language newspapers published in the first three months of 2021. Using a discursive and thematic approach to the analysis, it considers the degree to which these may be considered slur or taboo words, and whether they can be linked to discriminatory practices frequently experienced by groups with whom they are associated.
It is evident is that people use the terms differently in different arenas. However, they see them as negative, associate them with stereotypical characteristics, are happy to apply them to others, but want to avoid having them applied to themselves.
Language and the terms we use both help to constitute and display ingroup and outgroup status, enforcing community boundaries, bringing people into a community, and casting them out (Herbert & Kukla, 2016).
These two key understandings potentially come together in the use of three words: idiot, imbecile, and moron. These terms are typically associated with a lack of “intelligence” (Conley, 2010) and were the dominant scientific terms at the start of the 20th century. These concepts were included for example in the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act in the UK, introduced by Goddard to the National Education Association of the United States in 1910, and by Sutton to the Australasian Medical Congress in 1911. I have included moron, alongside Idiot and Imbecile, even though it was a term introduced in the United States, and was the equivalent to the English term “feebleminded” and the Australian term “mental defective” (Williams, 1996), because of its continued usage in the public discourse, and because it was the use of moron in a Daily Mail headline in 2018 that sparked this study.
Status is commonly defined by an ability to demonstrate specific knowledge in specific contexts, with superior status to those with the knowledge and even greater status to experts who can deepen that knowledge (Schoën, 1983). We have consequently developed a whole range of terms which are associated with this knowledge hierarchy (Rix, 2006). Formally these range from gifted and talented through to a long list of deficit categories, such as special educational needs, learning difficulties, additional support needs, learning disabilities, intellectual disability, cognitive impairment, emotional and behavioral difficulties, and so forth. There are also terms which have moved from the everyday into the formal realm of science and then back out again; terms such as idiot or imbecile. Others emerged from science before making the transition into the everyday, such as moron and cretin.
The scientific and legal status of such terms is evident, for example, in the first specific provision in the UK framed around people’s position within the knowledge hierarchy, which was established in Highgate in 1847 and was called the Asylum for Idiots. Similarly, in 1889 the Royal Commission on the Blind and Deaf distinguished between the feeble-minded, imbeciles, and idiots (Department of Education and Science [DES], 1978). The global spread of these terms is demonstrated too by their presence across institutional texts, for instance in Huey’s “Backward and Feeble-Minded Children”:
Idiots—Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about 2 years.
Imbeciles—Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about 7 years.
Morons—Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child of about 12 years. (Huey, 1912, pp. 6–7).
Such terms were still evident in legislation nearly a century later. For example, “imbecile” and “feeble-minded” could be found in Indian official documentation in 2001 (Rao, 2001) and “idiot” was included in British Common Law until 2006.
These terms have now moved out of the medical discourse (e.g., Ward, 1998). Their brief period of being what Hacking referred to as a “scientific kind” (Mendes, 2015) is behind us. However, they are still labels of a “mundane kind” (Mendes, 2015), used as part of our informal institutional language, sitting alongside words with a diametric meaning in the knowledge hierarcy; for instance lawyers continue to refer to a “moron in a hurry” as a test of copyright law, and schools call gifted and talented sessions “Genius Hours” (Ginsberg & Coke, 2019). In 2018, the Mail on Sunday newspaper could go with a headline “Are these the Morons who ruined Christmas?” while the next year the Mail’s departing editor could be called a “newspaperman of genius”; the President of the United States could refer to himself as a “stable genius” while the Brazilian president could refer to protesting teachers and students as “idiots” and “imbeciles.” The terms seem to have a role to play within educational contexts too. For example, before undertaking this study, the author noted how pupils refer to each other as idiots because they are different in some way, for example in relation to their faith (Vikdahl, 2019) or when referring to a teacher’s academic prowess (Storage et al., 2016) and its usage was evident in the language of academics too (Bancroft-Billings, 2020).
The shifting meaning and consequential impact of the use of these terms reflects the manner in which they act as part of our confused reification of the notion of intelligence (McDonagh, 2008). The discourse which surrounds the history of institutions associated with the “idiot class” reflects a view that people “lacking intelligence” are a danger to themselves and others. Consequently, our institutional goals have been to cure and shelter the defective and protect society from them (Wolfensberger, 1975). The idea of this class of person being a danger to society was (and perhaps still is) a clear message from our institutions, as was the inability of “these people” to mix with “others” or to be accepted by “others.” Alongside this long cultural history of otherness, was an association with the notion of fool through such stereotypes as the village idiot. The confused understanding about the meaning and impact of these terms is also reflected in current dictionary definitions, which frequently note that it is now offensive to apply the word to a person who would have been put in that category (e.g., Merriam-Webster, 2022: The FreeDictionary, 2022) but do not suggest it is offensive when applied generally.
Other words which arose in similar contexts are not evident in the same way. Retard and cretin in particular are seen more clearly as taboo words to be avoided. For example, in Australia, the courts have found against someone for describing someone as a cretin (Meade, 2021) and in the United Kingdom a politician has been berated from all sides for using the term (Elgot, 2018). Similarly, there are many websites where you can find people bemoaning that retard is now taboo (e.g., Perlman, 2019); while in contrast, there are large scale online campaigns where hundreds of thousands of people have taken a pledge not to use it (Special Olympics, 2022). Other terms such as special, spastic, and mental are also used in derogatory ways, and people may associate them with issues of intellect but they have other meanings too and are still in current formal usage in different forms across a range of institutions.
2 WHAT KINDS OF WORDS ARE THEY?
The linguistic appellation for these terms is debatable. Idiot, imbecile, and moron are pejoratives; generally, they are not taboo words and they may or may not be slurs. Pejoratives are expressions intended to insult or disparage, and which allow speakers to communicate emotional states beyond the underlying meaning (or truth) of what is said (Hom, 2012). Taboo words are extreme perjoratives, words which people know are socially frowned upon. Using natural semantic metalanguage (NSM) nomenclature they can be understood as words that are “very bad if someone says” (Goddard, 2015). Slurs have also been described as prohibited words, whose uses are offensive if those prohibitions matter to you (Anderson & Lepore, 2013). More generally slurs are described as expressions which derogate a particular group, defined by an intrinsic property and subordinating them within some structure of power relations, whose use invokes a set of externally determined, culturally, and historically situated attitudes (Davis & McCready, 2020); they denigrate individuals based on an aspect of their identity, placing them within an ideological space, with the potential to affect our expectations of them or our responses toward them (Burnett, 2020). In using slurs, even if they are aimed at a single individual, all members of the named group are potentially harmed by their use (Diaz Legaspe, 2018). It is suggested that the need for a slur to target particular groups or classes means that terms such as moron, idiot, and imbecile are not slurs:
The apparent presumption is that anyone who uses the N-word slurs all black people, but one who uses “moron” needn’t be slurring every mentally disabled person (Anderson & Lepore, 2013, p. 26).
A central component of the debate around whether a word is a slur or not is linked to the need for a word or phrase that can be used in place of the slur and which is not derogatory. The need for a neutral counterpart is contested. Some suggest that slurs do not require an associated demographic category at all (Ashwell, 2016). They recognize that they can be associated with sanctioning people for behavior that deviates from dominant social expectations and norms. Diaz Legaspe (2018), focussing upon gender norms, identifies these as normalizing slurs, and maintains these vary from demographic slurs that have neutral counterparts. The challenge for Ashwell (2016) is that without a neutral correlate, reclamation of terms (she focuses upon “slut”) require changes in social norms.
3 IS THERE A NEUTRAL CORRELATE?
“Do we insult people by calling them “idiots” because we want to align them with those devalued individuals whose intellectual, social and moral capacities are considered subnormal?” (McDonagh, 2008, p. 9).
The idea that there are no neutral counterparts for the notion of idiot, imbecile, and moron and that use of these terms does not invoke or target a particular group or class, is itself contestable.
In the context of English schools at the time of writing, for example, there are a range of groupings which can be seen to equate with these terms. The notion of idiot could be equated with the category of severe learning difficulties, an imbecile might be reframed as moderate learning difficulties, and a moron might be associated either with moderate learning difficulties or with the category of Social, Emotional and Mental Health. These groups of people experience historically and culturally situated stereotypical responses on a daily basis. People with learning difficulties are, for example, far more likely to be seen as worthy of abuse and to be dismissed by support services as the perpetrators of violence rather than as the victims (Sin et al., 2010). Along with people identified for behavioral difference, people identified with learning difficulties are also used to judgemental responses, particularly verbal abuse, which make them feel excluded and othered (Wayland et al., 2020).
Any claim for a neutral correlate must however be qualified by a recognition of the unreliability and permeability of the boundaries around such categories. Even if we may think we are talking about the same thing when we speak about a category associated with intellectual difference, we are probably not (Rix, 2022). Even within the same country the application of such concepts varies hugely: for example in 2019 in England 9% of children with a statutory assessment were diagnosed in one local authority as having a moderate learning disability, but over 40% in another, 1.1% were diagnosed with a severe learning difficulty in one authority versus 7.5% in another, and 4.6% in one authority were placed in the Social, Emotional and Mental Health category versus 22.6% elsewhere (Department for Education [DFE], 2020). The application of these labels does not depend on who a person is, but where they were when the assessment was undertaken and who undertook the assessment (Rix, 2015). The chaotic technical application of these terms however does not change many of the social presumptions about their existence. As is evident in debates around other protected characteristics (Equality Act 2010, 2010), such as sexual orientation, ethnicity, and race, many people recognize the fluid nature of categories while other people regard the boundaries of identity in far more restricted terms. It is worth noting too, that the behavior toward people with learning difficulties (identified in the previous paragraph) suggests other meanings are associated with their label.
It is also important to recognise the lack of consistency both in the definition of insults and taboo words over time resulting from their heterogeneous, context- and mode-dependent nature (Jay & Jay, 2013). The three concepts at the centre of this paper, absorb and drop meaning, varying across the ages and between spaces, “slipping in out of different realms of understanding” (McDonagh, 2008, p. 21). In writings before the 1600s, for example, “fools” and “idiots” was used for anyone who was not part of their elite group; agricultural workers, women, nongentlefolk, melancholics, it was even used to refer to the disciples before they met Jesus. Idiocy was a matter of class and background Goodey demonstrates how in the centuries before the mid-eighteen hundreds, the gradual shift in arguments about religious texts and the nature of humanity’s relationship with their God led to the emergence of the very categories and processes of categorizing which made it possible and desirable to start to identify all these different groups and then associate them with disruption of the norm; the groups which subsequently became formally labeled as idiots, imbeciles, morons and so forth.
“The idiot has been transformed into a resilient contrast group, a category of people against whom we rational modern (and post-modern) folk can identify ourselves, to affirm our intelligence and to assert our claims to respect and justice.” .