The Grammarphobia Blog

Idiot proof

Q: I realize this sounds idiotic, so feel free to ignore it. But after reading your posting about “idiom,” I keep thinking of a similarly spelled word, “idiot.” Any connection?

A: You’re right—there is a relationship here. And the connection isn’t as idiotic as it sounds.

As we said on the blog, “idiom” is ultimately derived from the Greek idioma, which in turn comes from idios (one’s own). So in the broadest sense an “idiom” is one’s own particular way of speaking.

But idios is also the parent of another Greek word, idiotes, which is the ultimate source of our word “idiot.”

The etymological link here isn’t as obvious, though, because in ancient Greece idiotes didn’t mean what our “idiot” means today.

As John Ayto explains in his Dictionary of Word Origins, the Greek idiotes originally meant a private person.

“It was extended to the ordinary ‘common man,’ particularly a lay person without any specialized knowledge,” he writes, “and so came to be used rather patronizingly for an ‘ignorant person.’ It is this derogatory sense that has come down to English via Latin idiota and Old French idiot.”

English picked up the word from Anglo-Norman and Old French in the 1300s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The first evidence of the word in writing comes from the Wycliffe Bible of about 1384, in the plural form “idiotis.”

In the relevant passage, the apostles Peter and John are referred to as “men with oute lettris [without letters], and idiotis.”

At that time, the OED says, “idiot” meant “a person without learning; an ignorant, uneducated person; a simple or ordinary person.”

A new meaning in law and medicine developed around 1400, when “idiot” was used to mean someone profoundly disabled mentally or intellectually.

A less official (and highly subjective) usage developed in the late 1400s. The OED says that’s when people began using “idiot” to mean “a person who speaks or acts in what the speaker considers an irrational way, or with extreme stupidity or foolishness.”

Finally, to end on a kinder note, the Greek idios gave us yet another word. Combined with the Greek sugkrasis (mixture), it formed idiosugkrasis, the ancestor of our English word “idiosyncrasy.”

The original idiosugkrasis might be translated as one’s own mixture of traits or characteristics.

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