Reflections on the brain of an idiot

I’ve just discovered that the Journal of Anatomy and Physiology have all their past issues freely available online all the way back to 1867. I came across a curious article entitled ‘Description of the Brain of an Idiot’ in the 1871 issue and it made me think about how names for brain disorders have been rejected and changed throughout history.

Back in 1871, the term ‘idiot’ was a proper medical term. It referred to someone we would now describe as having learning disabilities or intellectual impairment.

As the word became used as an everyday form of abuse, it left the realms of medicine because it was deemed inappropriate, and has been replaced by seemingly more appropriate terms. There is a long history of this process and it continues to this day.

For example, wildly abnormal or problematic sexual behaviours used to be called sexual deviancy. ‘Sexual deviancy’ described something beyond the presumed normal range, but it was thought to be inappropriate because it branded people as outsiders.

Now we use the term ‘paraphillia’ which means, well, exactly the same – someone who has desires outside the norm – but because it’s Greek, everyone is much happier.

It’s also interesting when the terminology differs between countries. In America, ‘mentally retarded’ is a common description in medicine, but in Europe it’s considered an outdated insult – similar to the previously official words imbecile and idiot.

However, it’s always struck me as a little curious why our words for intellectual disabilities have changed so much throughout history, but the word for epilepsy (despite there being many commonly used nicknames) has been maintained since the time of Ancient Greece.

Presumably, there’s something about the Greek language which just makes us feel better about our difficulties.

Link to 1871 article ‘Description of the Brain of an Idiot’.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the brain of an idiot”

  1. It wasn’t just ‘idiot’, ‘moron’ and ‘cretin’ were acceptable terms as well. There is an interesting evolution where these terms got adopted into common insults and replaced with other terms that have since become insults as well. ‘Mentally retarded’ was acceptable for a while but now ‘retarded’ and ‘retard’ are now common schoolyards taunts. I haven’t heard ‘paraphilic’ being used but ‘gay’ certainly is. ‘Mentally challenged’ is getting there as well. I can hardly wait to see what the medical community comes up with next.

  2. I believe that the old usage of “idiot”, “cretin”, and “imbecile” have been replaced in US terminology with “profound” (IQ <20) “severe” (IQ 20-34) “moderate”(IQ 35-49) “mild” (IQ 50-69) and “borderline” (IQ 70-79).
    As of January 1, 2007, the American Association on Mental Retardation renamed itself American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.
    A press release detailing the reason for the change is here:
    As I understand it, “learning disability” in the UK is either “mental retardation” (old term) or “intellectual disability” (new term).
    I don’t know about Australia and New Zealand.
    “Dyslexia” seems to have a slightly different connotation in England as well.
    Lynn Murphy keeps a blog on the differences between British and US English, Separated by A Common Language.
    I wrote about the differing meanings for “learning disability” here
    “Learning Disability” in the US and the UK

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