I've always loved language. I spoke early, and according to my mother, I wouldn't speak as a child until I could say a word correctly (except for raisins, which I called "sha sha." Go figure.). I stopped taking Science classes midway through high school so I could double up on English classes. I was an English major. I've written hundreds and hundreds of pages. Words matter, and they matter a lot to me.
Recently, we had a discussion on this blog about whether it's appropriate (well, not just appropriate but compassionate) to use words such as "idiot," "lame," and "crazy" in the course of everyday speech. (See the post, "They Cheered for Me" and the comments that followed.) Since then, I have found myself saying, "I'm such an idiot," or telling Penny as she wiggles her arms and spins around and falls on the ground: "You're crazy!" And I've wondered, what exactly am I communicating?
So I decided to look up the word idiot. Turns out, it's a word with a long history. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the word starting in the 1300's. Back then, and for hundreds of years, it held a host of meanings. Everything from an uneducated man to a clown to a layman (that is to say, not a member of the clergy). One dictionary quotes Blount (whoever that is?) as writing, "Christ was received of idiots, of the vulgar people, and of the simpler sort." If that's the meaning, then count me in.
But the word's second definition, which also was in use early on, reads: "A person so deficient in mental or intellectual faculty as to be incapable of ordinary acts of reasoning." Of course, it's only the use of the word that brings with it a negative connotation.
"Idiot" is a word that has always been used to describe people (in contrast to the word retard, which was usually used to describe the slowing down of an object or theme (i.e. a musical word). The two meanings–one about the specific mental capacity of an individual; the other much broader–existed side by side through the ages. In recent years my sense is that the second definition has won out.
So what do you think? Should I be more careful about my use of the word idiot? Or is it's meaning broad enough to avoid offense because it doesn't make negative reference to a specific group of people or individual? Is it any different from the word dumb or stupid?
There's a part of me that wants to conclude that I just shouldn't use any word to comment on my own intelligence, or lack thereof. If there's anything that Penny has taught me, it is that reducing any of us to our "mental capacity" is to reduce our humanity. But there's another part of me that thinks I'm getting wrapped up in knots about something silly, that the little girl who wanted always to pronounce words correctly is too intent upon figuring this out, and she just needs to lighten up a bit. Maybe I should just replace the word idiot with sha sha.