All three of these words in today’s way of thinking are very degrading and pretty much considered an insult. Not only that but each one basically has the same meaning as the other. They’re supposed to represent someone with a low level of intelligence and are often times used to hurt someone’s feelings. But this has not always been the case.
In 1905 the first American IQ test was developed and the difference between a moron and an imbecile was approximately 25 IQ points. At that time moron, imbecile and idiot were neutral, inoffensive terms and they all held their own scientific explanation. I know, that sounds pretty funny, but let me explain.
The First American IQ Test
The first IQ test was actually designed with a specific and practical purpose. It was developed by two French psychologists, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon. This is why it was known as the Binet-Simon scale.
It was comprised of a series of thirty different tasks each increasing in complexity. Starting with the most simple task such as asking someone to shake the examiner’s hand. It may of also included tasks such as following a lit match with his or hers eyes. These tests would scale from that, all the way up to something like remembering a series of seven random numbers. Or finding three words that rhymed with obeisance, which would of been much easier for someone that was French.
Theses tests were initially performed on children and were made to determine their level of abilities at varying ages. This is what created the concept of “mental age”, which would most times differ from their actual age.
Now keep in mind that these tests were developed purely out of practical purposes. Mainly to measure which children had special learning needs. This enabled them to be taught at different levels. This testing was supposed to enable teachers to exclude children who were troublesome, even though they may not of been developmentally challenged.
Accuracy of the Binet-Simon Scale
Binet was very scientific in his approach and understood that intelligence was not a fixed thing, he knew it was much more complex than that. Here is a quote from Binet on that subject.
I do not believe that one may measure one of the intellectual aptitudes in the sense that one measures length or a capacity. Thus, when a person studied can retain seven figures after a single audition, one can class him, from the point of his memory for figures, after the individual who retains eight figures under the same conditions, and before those who retain six. It is a classification, not a measurement. We do not measure, we classify.
Now that all sounds just like something a scientist would say, but there is some sense to it.
IQ Testing Comes to America
By the time IQ testing had reached America it’s goals had shifted quite a bit. The first translation of the tests were done by Henry H. Goddard, he was an American psychologist in the top of his field. He believed that society should be ran by the most intelligent of people. But he also believed that those with a lower intelligence should be institutionalized or sterilized! This is far from what I would consider a “sane” theory, but it was different times back then.
Goddard began developing his own version of the Binet-Simon scale and called them IQ tests, and they were categorized using adult participants. The scale ranged as follows. A gifted participant would have an IQ score of around 130, normal would be 71-129. Then there were morons which had a score ranging from 51-70, an imbecile 26-50 and finally an idiot had a score between 0 and 25. So you see, these words actually had scientific meaning according to Goddard.
Although today these words have a insulting meaning, during that time, they did not. In fact, until he developed his testing, moron wasn’t even a word. He actually invented it in 1912 and it came from the Greek word moros, meaning “dull”. The rising popularity of his test is what eventually led to these words having a derogatory meaning.
A Shift in the Meaning of Moron, Imbecile and Idiot
The way these words took on new meanings is a good example of how a neutral word can take on a negative meaning simply because they were associated with something less than normal. By the 1960s these had all grown into such negatively used words that scientists had to come up with new terminology. New words that could be used to describe lower levels of learning. They would be classified in more subtle terms of mild, moderate, severe and profound retardation.
Eventually these lower levels of learning abilities became known as the politically correct “mentally handicapped”. But even this began to develop a negative meaning when used as an insulting term. Today the more politically correct term is to refer to someone as having “special needs” or “learning difficulties”.
As this post clearly shows, there really is no subtle way to define someone with a learning disability (is that politically correct?). No matter how hard we try, the human desire to make someone else less than ourselves seems to always prevail. As our culture develops I’m sure we will see the coming of yet another way to describe these levels of intelligence. I guess it is just human nature to want to insult someone in order to make ourselves feel better. But remember, we have all been given our special place on this Earth, insulting your fellow man only brings us all down as a society.