Origin of the Word Idiot

I learned today that the word idiot originates from the Greek word idiwtes (idiotes), which refers to a person disinterested in participating in democracy and public life.  These people were viewed as selfish, contemptable and stupid as they were more concerned with their daily personal affairs than they were of the good of the society.  Later in the Middle Ages the word took on additional connotations associated with being stupid, such as being mentally incapable.

So don’t be an idiot… get involved in your democracy.
Freedom isn’t free.  (pay attention, vote, run for office)

Now this definition seems to run counter to Mark Twain’s statement “Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.”  However, at this time, most people in Congress are more interested in their careers than they are interested in our democracy.  This is evident by the ease with which they make compromises and give up their powers (our powers, since they are our representatives) so that they don’t have to make the hard decisions that may upset voters.  In the original Greek sense of the word, today’s Congress is full of idiots.

My friend James Kurien once told me a quote that goes

Stop acting like an idiot you moron!” 

What is funny about this is that it is entirely a reasonable thing to say since by today’s definition, a moron (50 < IQ < 69) is slightly more intelligent than an idiot (IQ < 20). 
Apparently morons are the people who vote.

Kevin Knuth
Albany NY

Published by


Kevin Knuth was born in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, USA. He received his Ph.D. in physics with a minor in mathematics at the University of Minnesota in 1995, and held postdoctoral positions studying neuroscience in New Orleans and New York City. From 2001 through 2005 he was a research scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in the Intelligent Systems Division developing machine learning techniques and their applications in the Autonomous Systems and Robotics Area. Currently he is an Assistant Professor in Physics at the University at Albany, State University of New York. His scientific interests include: probability theory, astrophysics, complex systems, earth science, and brain dynamics. For recreation, he enjoys hiking, birdwatching and poking around tidal pools.

One thought on “Origin of the Word Idiot”

  1. Excellent! The origin refers to a greater number of people in this age than one would suspect if one is judging by the contemporary meaning of the word. Mark Twain’s statement is still relevant and not at all far off the mark (forgive the pun).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>