Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Old and New Idiots

Lisa Cain sent a very articulate and eloquent reply to our Good Word idiot which I thought others would appreciate. Here it is in toto:

Dear Dr. Goodword,

One more bit of information/ advice about the word “idiot”. The self-advocacy community, which includes individuals with developmental and cognitive challenges, takes EXTREME umbrage at the use of this word.Their displeasure stems from the same feelings of discrimination and second class citizenship that motivated the African American community and many others to stand up and vocalize their discontent.

In the same way that language usage changes down through time – which is what makes it so interesting, don’t you think? – the use of this word (and other disparaging terms to describe individuals with cognitive difficulties) is quickly slipping into the category of “politically incorrect”, and hopefully into the historical records of our language.

I haven’t seen you do so before, but it would be nice if you would publish a caveat to this goodword that explains the above to a larger audience – your readers.

Lisa Cain


Dear Lisa,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment and your concern. Let me assure you: I share it. However, I decided that omitting the definition you refer to altogether would resolve it. Still, I did add the caveat that the word is considered offensive and should be avoided.

I no longer consider this a word to refer to people with developmental problems and so prefer simply to omit that meaning. It doesn’t exist for me. To continue using it and then warning others not to, struck me as inconsistent. Besides, telling someone not to do something usually encourages them to at least try it.

I can recall correcting my children when they referred to what we then called the mentally retarded, as retards. I was not the only one concerned, so the school system chose a euphemism, those requiring special education. Then I had to chide my children for referring to each other as speds. As I have mentioned before, taboo words are replaced by euphemisms which become taboo words which are replaced by taboo words which are replaced . . . ad infinitum. (Click here for more on the subject.)

However, “idiot” is also used harmlessly as a colloquial word that use to refer to ourselves and others when we do stupid things: “What an idiot, I have been!” is not uncommon. I see nothing wrong with this usage so long as we continue to do stupid things from time to time.

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