Monday, October 24, 2005
A stupid proposal
Do you know any idiots? How about morons, or imbeciles? Retards, perhaps? People riding the short bus?
The first three items were once part of standard terminology in intelligence measurement: “moron” is the most recent of them, having been proposed in the early twentieth century by Henry Goddard. Before the twentieth century, “idiot” and “imbecile” were general insults, as they are today, though they too were once pressed into service as classifications. For those of you who don’t remember those days, “morons” had what we now call “mild” mental retardation, or IQs between 50 and 70; “imbeciles” had what we now call “moderate” mental retardation, or IQs between 26 and 50; and everyone below that threshold, whom we now call people with “severe and profound” mental retardation, were idiots.
A century ago, “Mongoloid idiot,” for example, was not (as so many people think) a slur. It was a descriptive term, a diagnosis.
Over the past five years, the number of morons and idiots seems to have increased dramatically. Either that or the use of the terms has increased; as you know, it’s sometimes hard for us literature professors to figure out where language ends and nonlinguistic phenomena begin. But to gauge by the state of our political discourse, things are looking pretty grim. On one side you have people compiling lists of the left’s “useful idiots”; on the other side you have people calling Bush a “moron” and drawing cartoons that liken the U.S. to a classroom led by a “special ed” student. And on the Internets, “retard” is common parlance, found on every point of the political spectrum.
It’s not as if I’ve never used the terms myself. The other day, as my poor automobile was minding its own business, just humming along down the highway, it was suddenly set upon by a clump of drivers so reckless and inattentive that I referred to two of them (then in the act of cutting each other off in the left lane) as “idiots.” “You know,” said my co-pilot, “we should probably retire that word one of these days.” She was right, and I admitted as much at the time. “Besides,” I added, “these guys are really assholes.”
After all, dear reader, it’s not as if the English language is hurtin’ for terms of abuse. If you truly believe that someone is acting unwisely or thinking incompetently, you can draw upon thousands of words that speak about performance rather than capacity, which is far more appropriate anyway (as Chris Clarke has eloquently pointed out). That “moron” you revile might just as easily be a jerk, a jerkoff, or a jackass; the “idiot” in the adjacent car or adjacent voting booth might instead be a fool, a wuss, a sap, a chump, a poltroon, a schlemiel, or a patsy. Even as you read these words, thousands of people are just begging to be called scoundrels, prigs, and coxcombs. Why, there’s even an entire Shakespearean Insult Server available online for those of you who want to hurl especially colorful and vivid forms of contempt and contumely upon your adversaries, so there’s really no excuse for failing to take full advantage of the opportunities afforded by this rich and complex language of ours.
If you’re concerned about stigmatizing jackasses, however, on the grounds that you may be likening an innocent beast to a hideous human (or, conversely, figuratively dehumanizing one of your fellow men or women), you can always adopt the more politically correct term “jackass-American,” presuming, of course, that the jackass in question is -American.
So next time you’re fed up with someone and you want to call his or her intelligence or judgment into question, remember: you might be better off with insults that speak to the performance of intelligence or judgment rather than to capacity. This isn’t just a matter of politeness; it’s also a matter of proper English usage. Many, many morons and retards have very good judgment about some matters, whereas many, many ostensibly intelligent people make bafflingly, excruciatingly bad decisions. Why? Because some of them are knaves, and others gulls, and still others hoodlums and miscreants. That’s why.