Eat your iodine.
Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “cretinism”? I have been hunting for this answer with the idea that maybe it is tied to the island of Crete and some view by the Greeks that they were some sort of giants or something, but have come up dry. Hopefully you wise people will find the answer. –Joseph Lynch.
That’s a good question. Incidentally, in your email you spelled the word “cretenism” (rather than “cretinism,” the standard form), which may be why you had difficulty finding information. If one plugs “cretenism” into Google, it does cough up about 500 web pages spelling it that way, mostly blogs and the like, but many of them serious medical sites, which is odd. In fact, the US government National Institutes of Health occasionally uses that spelling.
In any case, your hunch connecting “cretinism” to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, is entirely reasonable, given the similarity in pronunciation of “cretin” (“KREET-in”) to “Cretan,” a native of the island (“KREET-an”). But there is no connection between the two words.
Today “cretin” is usually used as a derogatory slang term for someone perceived as being stupid, foolish or incompetent, equivalent to “moron,” “idiot” or “nitwit” (“I had to get clearance from some cretin in Human Resources to take the day off.”). The origins of “cretin,” however, lie in a true human tragedy.
The medical condition known as “cretinism” is caused by a severe deficiency of thyroid hormones (a condition known as “hypothyroidism”). In infants, this condition results in greatly stunted growth, physical deformities and cognitive impairment that ranges from slight to severe. The primary cause of cretinism is lack of iodine in the diet, a deficiency that can also cause “goiter,” a grossly enlarged thyroid gland visible as a large swelling in the neck. Hypothyroidism today is usually successfully treated with iodine supplements.
Lack of iodine in the diet (due mostly to poor soil conditions) was, at one time, common in southern Europe, especially in the rural villages of the valleys at the foot of the Alps. The word “cretin” itself is derived from the Swiss French Alpine dialect word “crestin,” from the Latin word “Christianum,” which means “Christian.”
Just why the word “Christian” was applied to such sufferers is a matter of dispute among etymologists, but the most likely explanation is that “Christian” was used in the sense of “human creature, worthy of respect” in order to make clear that those afflicted with “cretinism,” while they might look and act a bit odd, were simply people like the rest of us. “Christian” was also used in English in this non-religious sense from the 16th through the 19th century, essentially as a synonym of “fellow” or “regular guy.”