The Origin of the Moron

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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As an emotionally repressed New Englander, my preferred means of outwardly displaying bonds with the people I’m close to is verbal abuse. “Hey, idiot,” is one way to start a text thread that might lead to getting lunch. My dad’s favorite new nickname for me? “Stupid.” This works for me, because I am broken.

But did you know that some of the most prominent put-downs in the English language have been cribbed from outdated “scientific” terminology? See, in the early 1900s, science-types were throwing lots of ideas at the wall, just to see what stuck.

While this haphazard approach to pseudoscience was ultimately none too enlightening (and often racist as sh*t), it left behind some orphan words. Words that we still use today, mostly divorced of their original meanings. Words that would probably make it to the list of banished terminology, were it not for the fact that we’re over 100 years removed from their scummy origins and, because, we like to use them too much.

I’m talking about words like “moron.” We’re all familiar with the term—as a Boston resident who drives a car, I’m mostly accustomed with the regional variant, “you f**king moron”—but where’d it come from? Believe it or not, “moron” was once a medical term, mainly applied toward southern and eastern European immigrants.

I Sh*t You Not

Back in the early 20th century, there sure were a lot of theories about genetics, largely bred from feverish nationalism. “Eugenics,” they called ‘em, and you’ve probably heard the term before—it’s one of the west’s shining examples of 20th-century archaic quackery; a symptom of an era of unbridled scientific experimentation, performed by dudes who were born in the 19th century.

Enjoy these Google image search results for “eugenics.” I’m on a list now.

The result was jingoistic, pseudoscientific chaff like this: “The character of a nation is determined primarily by its racial qualities; that is the hereditary physical, mental and moral or temperamental traits of its people.” Those are words from Harry H. Laughlin, who was considered an educator and a sociologist, spoken to Congress in support of the eugenics movement.

Over half of all states in the union passed eugenics laws, amidst the craze, which would serve to sterilize the “unfit.” I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that this came during an immigration boom in the United States. If you were a southern or eastern European, chances are that you were suspicious to American eugenicists. The only way to be sure such immigrants were fit to be Americans was to observe and test them, often at Ellis Island.1

‘Moron,’ Brought to You by Henry H. Goddard

H.H. Goddard—not to be confused with his aforementioned colleague, H.H. Laughlin—was another big name in eugenics at the time. Technically speaking, he was indeed a psychologist, with a PhD and everything, which just goes to show you that eugenics really was considered cutting-edge science at the time. Rather than, you know, the expression of xenophobic tendencies via the facade of empiricism.

Goddard’s legacy, if I’m being charitable, is that he is the father of American intelligence testing. That doesn’t sound so bad, right? Intelligence—that’s good! We should test for it to find more of it, right?

Well, that was Goddard’s basic idea, I suppose. Only, he was notably preoccupied with testing the intelligence of immigrants—particularly of the Hungarian, Italian, and Jewish variety.

I hope you appreciate that I’m digging these old images up, because my YouTube recommendations are about to get terrible.

The scientific community already had a pretty airtight method for diagnosing cognitive disabilities and categorizing them into three types: “idiots,” “imbeciles,” and the “feeble-minded.” So that’s where psychology was before Goddard added his own term: “moron.”2

“Feeble-minded” was the least severe of these categories, but Goddard wasn’t happy with the name. He wanted something that sounded more scientific. So, Goddard did what people do when they want to sound smart and coin smart-sounding words: he checked a classical language for inspiration. The Greek word mōros, meaning “foolish” or “stupid” would do nicely, with a bit of anglicization, of course. Thus, in 1910, the word “moron” was born.3

Great. So Then What’d He Do?

Now that Goddard had settled on his wording, he needed to figure out exactly who the morons were, and how to keep them from entering America.

It’s worth pointing out that this grave need to filter out “unfit” immigrants from entering the United States wasn’t quite from the point of view that Americans were great, and foreigners sucked. Instead, eugenicists like Goddard were troubled by a perceived lack of intelligence amongst Americans already.

The quality of “American stock” was already worrying to these eugenicists, and was thought to be the source of the United States’ flaws. So turning away immigrants that they determined to also of poor “stock” was an effort to stop the “problem” from getting worse.

Still, it all seemed pretty damn racist, when you consider the hypothesis, the methodology, and the results. In 1913, Goddard had female assistants (they’re more intuitive, he thought) go to Ellis Island, where they would pretty much just eyeball immigrants in order to pick out the likely “morons” and then administer Goddard’s tests.

Henry H. Goddard, who expected to be taken seriously despite the bowtie.

The results: 40 percent of Jews, Italians, and Hungarians were “morons.” Goddard wrote in his report, “Doubtless the thought in every reader’s mind is the same as in ours, that it is impossible that half of such a group of immigrants could be feeble-minded, but know that it is never wise to discard a scientific result because of apparent absurdity.”

Anybody Else Getting a Bad Taste in their Mouths?

Let’s unpack Goddard’s results a little bit here: First, 40 percent of a group of people ain’t half, it’s two-fifths. At least he comes close to nailing the analysis portion of his testing here: “it is impossible that half of such a group of immigrants could be feeble-minded.” Indeed it is, Goddard. Maybe the problem was with how the experiment was conducted. For example: was the test conducted in English? That might have accounted for some poor results.

I hope it goes without saying that, just because I’m delivering this information to you, doesn’t mean I support any of the above terminologies or eugenics theory. That said, absorbing history is about understanding context, and Goddard was a product of his time, just like everybody else. In 1910, “moron” couldn’t have had the same meaning to broader culture that it holds now, and psychology’s terminology game at the time was pretty weak, in general. If you can diagnose someone as an “idiot,” then why not “moron”? Seems like anything went.

And that’s the problem—this stuff was taken seriously enough that “morons” started being deported like crazy following Goddard’s results. Deportation numbers doubled in the year after Goddard’s presented his findings.

Further, Goddard wanted to sterilize American “morons” (and others deemed “unfit”) so they couldn’t procreate. He assumed this tactic would be offensive to people, so he instead recommended locking “unfit” people in institutions, where they’d be removed from the gene pool. Apparently, it wasn’t as offensive as he thought: more than half of the states passed sterilization laws and ultimately conducted 60,000 involuntary surgeries.4

Between that, and the fact that one of this dude’s assistants might have labeled my great grandpa—an orphan kid from Sicily—a “moron” just by looking at him, I’ve been inspired to coin a new medical term to describe eugenicists like Goddard: “assh*le.”

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Straley, Joella. (2014, February 10). It Took A Eugenicist to Come Up With ‘Moron.’ Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/10/267561895/it-took-a-eugenicist-to-come-up-with-moron
  2. Straley, Joella. (2014, February 10). It Took A Eugenicist to Come Up With ‘Moron.’ Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/10/267561895/it-took-a-eugenicist-to-come-up-with-moron
  3. Merriam-Webster. (Accessed July 20, 2018). Moron. Retrieved from  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/moron
  4. Straley, Joella. (2014, February 10). It Took A Eugenicist to Come Up With ‘Moron.’ Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/10/267561895/it-took-a-eugenicist-to-come-up-with-moron

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Human Intelligence. (Accessed July 19, 2018). Henry Herbert Goddard. Retrieved from https://www.intelltheory.com/goddard.shtml
  • Merriam-Webster. (Accessed July 20, 2018). Moron. Retrieved from  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/moron
  • Straley, Joella. (2014, February 10). It Took A Eugenicist to Come Up With ‘Moron.’ Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/02/10/267561895/it-took-a-eugenicist-to-come-up-with-moron

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