From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"Idiot: A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot's activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but "pervades and regulates the whole." He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions and opinion of taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line." --The Devil's Dictionary
Idiot was formerly a legal and psychiatric category of profound intellectual disability, where a person's mental age is two years or less, and he or she cannot guard himself or herself against common physical dangers. Along with terms like moron, imbecile, and cretin, the term is now archaic and offensive, and was replaced by the term profound mental retardation (which has itself since been replaced by other terms).
Nowadays, "idiot" is a derogatory term for a stupid or foolish person. It is a weak insult, however, and between close friends, family members, or lovers, is often completely nonaggressive.
Idiot as a word derived from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs ("person lacking professional skill", "a private citizen", "individual"), from ἴδιος, idios ("private", "one's own"). In Latin the word idiota ("ordinary person, layman") preceded the Late Latin meaning "uneducated or ignorant person". Its modern meaning and form dates back to Middle English around the year 1300, from the Old French idiote ("uneducated or ignorant person"). The related word idiocy dates to 1487 and may have been analogously modeled on the words prophet The word has cognates in many other languages.
An idiot in Athenian democracy was someone who was characterized by self-centeredness and concerned almost exclusively with private—as opposed to public—affairs. Idiocy was the natural state of ignorance into which all persons were born and its opposite, citizenship, was effected through formalized education. In Athenian democracy, idiots were born and citizens were made through education (although citizenship was also largely hereditary). "Idiot" originally referred to "layman, person lacking professional skill", "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning". Declining to take part in public life, such as democratic government of the polis (city state), was considered dishonorable. "Idiots" were seen as having bad judgment in public and political matters. Over time, the term "idiot" shifted away from its original connotation of selfishness and came to refer to individuals with overall bad judgment–individuals who are "stupid". According to the Bauer-Danker Lexicon, the noun ίδιωτής in ancient Greek meant "civilian" (ref Josephus Bell 2 178), "private citizen" (ref sb 3924 9 25), "private soldier as opposed to officer," (Polybius 1.69), "relatively unskilled, not clever," (Herodotus 2,81 and 7 199). The military connotation in Bauer's definition stems from the fact that ancient Greek armies in the time of total war mobilized all male citizens (to the age of 50) to fight, and many of these citizens tended to fight poorly and ignorantly.
In modern English usage, the terms "idiot" and "idiocy" describe an extreme folly or stupidity, and its symptoms (foolish or stupid utterance or deed). In psychology, it is a historical term for the state or condition now called profound intellectual disability.
A few authors have used "idiot" characters in novels, plays and poetry. Often these characters are used to highlight or indicate something else (allegory). Examples of such usage are William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and William Wordsworth's The Idiot Boy. Idiot characters in literature are often confused with or subsumed within mad or lunatic characters. The most common imbrication between these two categories of mental impairment occurs in the polemic surrounding Edmund from William Shakespeare's King Lear. In Fyodor Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, the idiocy of the main character, Prince Lev Nikolaievich Myshkin, is attributed more to his honesty, trustfulness, kindness, and humility, than to a lack of intellectual ability. Nietzsche claimed, in his The Antichrist, that Jesus was an idiot. This resulted from his description of Jesus as having an aversion toward the material world: "To make a hero of Jesus! And even more, what a misunderstanding is the word "genius"! Our whole concept, our cultural concept, of "spirit" has no meaning whatever in the world in which Jesus lives. Spoken with the precision of a physiologist, even an entirely different word would be yet more fitting here—the word idiot." (§ 29, partially quoted here, contains three words that were suppressed by Nietzsche's sister when she published The Antichrist in 1895. The words are: "das Wort Idiot", translated here as "the word idiot". They were not made public until 1931, by Josef Hofmiller. H. L. Mencken's 1920 translation does not contain these words.)
In the novel Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, the character of Ben, a man who inhabits Rebecca de Winter's former beach cottage, is referred to as an idiot, because of his childlike behavior, confusion and anti-social behavior.
- The Idiot
- Village idiot
- Mental retardation
- The Idiots
- Libri idiotarum
- Useful idiot
- L'Idiot de la famille