Idiot

Why is Uncle Albert wearing that funny jacket?

Dear Word Detective: We are wondering if the word “idiot” had the same definition in 1700 as it does today. We are working on a family history. — Joan.

idiot08.pngIsn’t genealogy fun? You learn all sorts of interesting things about your ancestors. I read recently that genealogical websites are among the most popular on the internet. The quality of these sites varies greatly, of course, so it’s important to choose carefully. I am very skeptical, for instance, of the one that informed me that I’m actually descended from Eskimo pole-dancers and offered me an opportunity to meet some of my relatives (“They have a hundred words for hot!”).

Although your question might be mistaken for the setup to a Rodney Dangerfield routine, it’s far from impossible that “idiot” might have meant something other than “stupid person” in 1700. Words frequently change their meanings over time, sometimes radically. An oft-cited example is the word “nice,” which today we use to mean “pleasant, agreeable, friendly.” But the root of “nice” is the Latin “nescius,” meaning literally “ignorant” (from “ne,” not, plus a form of the verb “scire,” meaning “to know,” also the root of our modern word “science”). When “nice” entered English in the 12th century from the Old French, it meant “ignorant” or “stupid,” and by the 14th century it was being used to mean “wanton” or “immoral.” But things started to look up for “nice” a century later, when it began to be used to mean first “shy,” then “refined” and “fastidious.” Eventually, in the 19th century, it took on the modern meaning of “pleasant.”

“Idiot” is another word that has changed its meaning over the centuries, although not as dramatically as “nice” once it was imported into English. The Greek “idiotes” meant simply “private individual” (from “idios,” meaning “personal”), as opposed to a “public man,” a politician or other well-known individual. (“Idios” also gave us “idiom,” one’s own way of speaking, and “idiosyncrasy,” one’s personal quirks and habits.)

By the time English imported “idiot” from French in the 13th century, however, “idiot” had already fallen on hard times, linguistically speaking. From “private individual,” it had evolved to mean “layman” or “uneducated common man,” and by the time it appeared in English “idiot” had come to primarily mean “ignorant person,” or, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helpfully puts it, “a simple man; a clown.” Almost all usage of “idiot” in the subsequent centuries has reflected this general sense of “fool.”

There is, however, a bright spot in the history of “idiot” in the 17th century. In the mid-1600s, according to the OED, there was a spike in the use of “idiot” in the old sense of “layman, untrained amateur” (“Idiots admire in things the Beauty of their Materials, but Artists that of the Workmanship,” 1663), as well as the sense of “private person.” So there’s a possibility that anyone referred to as an “idiot” in that period was guilty of nothing more than not being an expert.

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