Words Hurt: A history of common insults

After reading this article by Uuganaa Ramsay, I was interested to find out about the etymologies of words that are used as insults.

Words used as insults can affect more than just their target

In any language, there are words that hurt. But they don’t just hurt the people they are directed at. Seemingly specific insults targeted at one person in a tweet or a Facebook post in relation to their belief or understanding of something may well offend countless others who believe the same thing. A word you may not find offensive, could seriously offend many people.

So here are a few common insults, and where they came from.

Mong, Mongol, Mongoloid.

The great Mongolian family has numerous representatives, and it is to this division, I wish, in this paper, to call special attention. A very large number of congenital idiots are typical Mongols. So marked is this, that when placed side by side, it is difficult to believe that the specimens compared are not children of the same parents. The number of idiots who arrange themselves around the Mongolian type is so great, and they present such a close resemblance to one another in mental power, that I shall describe an idiot member of this racial division, selected from the large number that have fallen under my observation.

The hair is not black, as in the real Mongol, but of a brownish colour, straight and scanty. The face is flat and broad, and destitute of prominence. The cheeks are roundish, and extended laterally. The eyes are obliquely placed, and the internal canthi more than normally distant from one another. The palpebral fissure is very narrow. The forehead is wrinkled transversely from the constant assistance which the levatores palpebrarum derive from the occipito-frontalis muscle in the opening of the eyes. The lips are large and thick with transverse fissures. The tongue is long, thick, and is much roughened. The nose is small. The skin has a slight dirty yellowish tinge, and is deficient in elasticity, giving the appearance of being too large for the body.

This is what John Langdon Down wrote in his paper Observations on the Ethnic Classification of Idiots in 1866. Of course, he couldn’t know that 150 years later, people would still use the terms mong, mongol and mongoloid in a derogatory fashion when referring to people with the condition which now bears his name.

The people of Mongolia are stigmatised, with people the world over expecting them to be stupid or slow, and are the subject of derision and aggression. In the twenty-first century, how is it possible that people can still be so cruel and uninformed?

Idiot, moron, imbecile

I’ve grouped these three words together because they’re all used in the same way, and as hard as it is to say it, rightly so. All three words were used in Henry H Goddard’s translation of the Binet-Simon Scale, which is regarded as the first practical intelligence test.

An idiot was the term used for anyone with an IQ of 0-25, an imbecile was in the IQ range of 26-50 and a moron – a term coined by Goddard – had an IQ in the range of 51-70.

Etymologically, idiot derives from the Greek ἰδιώτης, idiṓtēs meaning ‘a private citizen, or one who has no professional knowledge.

Imbecile is derived from the latin imbēcillus meaning ‘weak or feeble, without a supporting staff’.

Moron, as I stated above, was coined by Henry H Goddard from the Greek μωρός, moros which simply meant dull.

These words, along with feeble-minded have fallen out of favour in psychology, however they are still used in the general community. It seems a shame that people use them as insults without considering their origins, no matter how appropriate they may seem.

Geek, nerd

If you’re an intelligent person, chances are that you were called one of these names in school. As if you don’t have enough to deal with in school, kids are cruel and will insist on calling people insulting names. It’s just a fact of life – a horrible one – but a fact of life nonetheless.

How do you like them apples?
How do you like them apples?

Amusingly with the word geek, which students with an interest in a particular subject tend to be called by the ‘popular’ kids, it’s derived from the Middle Low German word Geck which means a ‘dandy or poser’. Is it just me or is there a touch of poetic irony in there? That an insult would be used by the very people the word originally referred to screams “how do you like them apples?”

Nerd is less clear cut. There is no known origin for the word, although it has certainly been around since 1950, when it appeared in If I Ran the Zoo by Dr Seuss. It appears to be an alteration of nerts, which itself is an alteration of nuts, to avoid confusion with the vulgar use of nuts to mean testicles. Generally it is used to refer to someone who is both intelligent and introverted.

I’m happy to label myself as both a geek and a nerd. I don’t think of them as insults. I’m not ashamed of my education, and I don’t think any intelligent person should. As long as someone isn’t claiming that because they have a college education that everyone else is somehow inferior to them, then an education isn’t something to be ashamed of.

So next time you want to insult someone, make sure you’re not offending an entire nation, and don’t make sweeping generalisations about people’s intellect.

x Rebecca

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