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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a fool, a blockhead

Political words always prove popular on HH, but a somewhat unexpected addition to our list is this:

The word idiot is derived at length from the Ancient Greek word idios, which essentially meant “on one’s own” or “private”. That’s the same root from which words like idiomatic (language unique to one place or group of people) and idiosyncrasy (a quirk unique to one person) are derived, as well as the Ancient Greek word idiotes, which essentially meant “private citizen”.

But in the culture of Ancient Athens, there was more to the word idiotes than just someone who kept themselves to themselves.

Strictly speaking, an idiotes was someone whose day-to-day life was unaffected by or had little to no connection with public affairs and the business of the state. In that sense, an idiotes was basically a layperson, as opposed to the soldiers, scribes, judges, skilled workers, officials and politicians whose work directly affected the running of the city. Idiocy was ultimately equivalent to privacy and independence; it was essentially the opposite of citizenship.

But because of that distinction, the word idiotes soon began to be used to refer not only to those individuals who sat outside the city’s day-to-day business, but to those who were considered too uncultured or too poorly educated to take an interest in, or to pass informed judgments on, public affairs. And it’s from there that the first idiots as we know them today began to emerge.

cartoon of a dunce in a fools cap

Soon, the word was being used more broadly of foolish, ignorant, clumsy or awkward people. By the third century, it had fallen into use in Latin too, where it likewise quickly become synonymous with ignorant, uneducated people. The original political meaning survived for a time, but as the culture and traditions of Ancient Greece faded into history, this newer, more figurative meaning eventually replaced it. And, borrowed into the language via French, idiot cropped up in English for the very first time—in the Wycliffe Bible of all places—in c. 1384.

Idiots, it seems, have been with us ever since. But whether the connection to politics has survived too is open to debate...

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