Simanaitis Says

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I LOVE learning word origins. The New York Times, June 12, 2017, carried “Trump and the True Meaning of ‘Idiot,’ ” an interesting etymological piece by Eric Anthamatten.

What brought Anthamatten to this topic was a Quinnipiac University poll of registered voters nationwide, performed May 4–9, 2017. Of 1078 respondents, 35 percent identified themselves as Independents, 34 percent Democrats, 24 percent Republicans, the remaining participants choosing Other. A noteworthy facet of the poll is its being funded entirely by the university.

One of the poll’s many questions was “What is the first word that comes to mind when you think of Donald Trump?” This free-association query had no suggested answers. Forty-six different words were cited at least five times by respondents. The complete array of 46 qualifying words is shown here.

idiot 39
incompetent 31
liar 30
leader, unqualified 25
president 22
strong 21
businessman 18
ignorant 16
egotistical 15
asshole, stupid 13
arrogant, trying 12
bully, business, narcissist,
successful  11
disgusting, great, clown 10
dishonest, racist 9
American, bigot, good, money,
smart  8
buffoon, con-man, crazy, different,
disaster, rich  7
despicable, dictator 6
aggressive, blowhard, decisive,
embarrassment, evil, greedy,
inexperienced, mental, negotiator,
patriotism  5

As shown, the plurality winner, with 39 respondents, was the word “idiot.” The word “president” came in sixth, with 22 respondents. Favorites of mine include bully and narcissist, each earning 11 mentions; and buffoon, earning seven.

Sidestepping for the moment the Trumpian aspects of this, I am fascinated by Anthamatten’s etymological research on the evolved meaning of the word “idiot.”

The ancient Greek word ιδιοτεσ, idiotes, described someone contributing nothing to public life nor to the common good. Selfish, withdrawn and isolated behavior of an idiotes was contrasted with that of the πολιτεσ, or polites, the public citizen.

“In Greek society,” Anthamatten notes, “the condition of idiocy was seen as peculiar and strange (a meaning that is retained in the English word ‘idiosyncratic’).” The modern word “idiom” evolves from the Ancient Greek’s idiotes speaking in a way not understood by others. Anthamatten quotes Shakespeare’s Macbeth in this regard: “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the term “idiot” was formally used to describe a person specifically of low intelligence: An adult with a mental age less than three years old was classified as an idiot; between three and seven, an imbecile; between seven and ten, a moron.

One would like to think that such hurtful words are things of the past. However, as Anthamatten notes, “Yet, the term is still on the books in Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico and Ohio, which officially do not allow ‘idiots’ to vote.”

I followed up with a bit of research in my Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, 1971. The relevant section defines the prefix ίδιο, idio, with the meaning of “own, personal, or private.” Variations follow: idiom, idiopathy (“an illness arising spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause”), idiosyncrasy, and, alphabetically, idiot.

The OED’s first meaning of “idiot” is “a person without learning; an ignorant man; a clown.” It cites usage in both the Vulgate and Greek New Testament versions of the Bible.

Other historical citations are given: “Ryght as be twelue ydiotes,” 1440. “The bisshop repreuyd hym sore as unconnying and an ydeote,” 1483.

The OED also notes a 16th-century replacement of the “i” with an “n,” giving the word “nidget” and its siblings. Back then, “he would prove a very foole and a nigeot.” Also, “to play the fop or nidget.”

Eventually, spelling settled down.

The OED’s second meaning of “idiot” is “a person so deficient in mental or intellectual facility as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning or rational conduct.”

And I believe this brings us more or less up to date with Quinnipiac University findings. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Al Koivisto
    June 14, 2017

    Dear Mr. Simanaitis,

    Please, enough commentary about Trump. I get my fill of it daily from all the usual media talking heads! Stick with automobiles, aircraft, boats, the arts, etc!!


    Al, from northern Minnesota

    • simanaitissays
      June 14, 2017

      I appreciate your point of view, Al. However, I also write about “other stuff,” and will continue to do so.

      • VTK
        June 19, 2017

        Thank you. It is your blog, after all.

  2. Michael Rubin
    June 14, 2017

    Thanks for commenting on this, Dennis, and keep up the great columns covering everything from early opera to Ancient Greek definitions of idiot. And contemporary definitions, too.

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