A Defense of “Moron” as an Insult


[TL;DR version at the end of the article]

Chris Clarke posting at Pharyngula has written a condemnation of the use of the insult, ‘moron,’ in response to a challenge from a reader.

But he’s right about my not having offered my opinion on the use of the word “moron”.


And here it is: I don’t like it.

He then links back to his previous post, “Retarding the Discourse,” posted at Coyote Crossing, and says the reasoning is the same.  The argument, briefly summed, is that intelligence is not a moral success or failing.  Intelligence –  defined initially as “whatever is measured by IQ tests” – does not entail any other attributes, such as “compassion, judgment, common sense, intellectual flexibility, wisdom.”

Later, the definition is broadened, conceding that IQ tests do measure something that Clarke himself described as possessing, a quality of “smart” that the tests were measuring successfully, something that united all of the students at the school for brilliant kids that Clarke attended because he was brilliant:

Even among the brilliant kids in that school I went to one could find avaricious thugs, dullards, ideologues, and sociopaths.

The right tail has its altruistic Schweitzers, its intuitive and holistic Einsteins, to be sure. But it also has its insane Kaczynskis, its murderous Kissingers, its hidebound and mediocre Victor Davis Hansons. All of them brilliant, to be sure.


But there are more important things than brilliance.


I don’t disagree with the larger argument – that being intelligent is not guarantee of moral superiority nor is it something that makes one more or less deserving of humane treatment.  Retarding the Discourse argues that the word “retard” equates mental disability with stupidity.  That is wrong, he says, because he knows many mentally disabled people who were also very intelligent.

My brother suffers from a confusing suite of trauma-related mental disabilities and is nonetheless the single most intelligent person I have ever met. Dyslexia is a disability affecting mentation, and some brilliant people suffer from it. Geniuses get Alzheimers.

Again, no argument here.  Mental disability does not equal unintelligence.  But not all people with mental disabilities are suffering from mental retardation. “Retard” was not adopted by the psychological community because it’s an inherently demeaning word.  It is a contemporary medical term that is undergoing pejoration right now.  The basic image of a “retard” for most people using the term is likely a child with stereotypical Trisomy-21 or similar facial features (features that have absolutely nothing to do with intelligence).  The same cannot be said of words like ‘moron,’ ‘idiot,’ or ‘imbecile,’ which underwent pejoration so distantly that the bulk of contemporary speakers are unaware of its “original” medical definition.  I put original in quotes because “moron” appears to be the only word Stanford-Binet coined (and only then because it was the ancient Greek translation for “fool” and literally means “dullard,” a word Clarke uses without reservation).  Imbecile acquired its meaning of “feeble-minded” about a century earlier, whereas idiot has meant uneducated or mentally deficient in some form or another for almost a thousand years.

“Retarded” has a longer history meaning “mentally slo,” but the word “retard” as a noun came into usage in 1970.  This is a good explanation for the difference in basic image, and why the following assertion, when expanded to include “moron” and ‘idiot,” is very unfair:

   Liberals, it turns out, are rather likely to insult their political opponents by alleging that they’re cognitively disabled.

At some point, words that undergo pejoration lose their original meaning. When words lose their original meaning, it’s reasonable to say they don’t mean that anymore.  Some day, this may happen with the word gay for instance; it already lost it’s original meaning once within living memory.

It’s unfair, but more importantly, a fool’s errand to try to hold people responsible for the prejudices of their ancestors’ prejudices.  Any word used to euphemize something that is widely viewed as undesireable will undergo pejoration; recently, some have started referring to this process as the euphemism treadmill.  In saying this, I am not condoning the negative connotations that attach to any euphemism for profound cognitive delay/challenges/retardation/whatever, or saying we should stop trying as a culture to change how people with mental disabilities including mental retardation are viewed.

I’m saying that the moron/idiot/imbecile ship has sailed.

The Pharyngula article included alternatives to moron, such as the word ‘buffoon.’  The word “buffoon” originally meant something like “clown.” He is probably not calling anyone a buffoon because of a personal hatred for mimes. It would be unfair to say, “Chris Clarke is rather likely to insult his political opponents by calling them mimes.”  There’s no need to stand up for the dignity of clowns. The word has undergone pejoration and now means something new.  “Retarding the Discourse” suggests “dullard,” but I don’t see how that’s better than “moron” since that’s literally the direct English translation of “moron” (oxy-moron = literally, sharp-dull).

“Jackanapes” was a new one for me, but it appears it already has a meaning, and I’m not sure there’s enough overlap between “rude” and “stupid” for it to make a good substitute for “moron.”

One last example: the word “nice” originally meant something very close to moron, but has since undergone the opposite process – amelioration – and lost its denotation of stupidity.  Should we abandon that word as well, given its history?

Here’s the TL;DR distillation.

Is it the word “moron” that’s the problem? (I.e., is it a slur for a specific group of people, like “retard,” which implicates a group unrelated to the person you’re insulting?)

Is it the word “moron’s” meaning that’s the problem? (I.e., is attacking a person’s intelligence inherently unacceptable and ableist?  I am sympathetic to this, but “Retarding the Discourse” went out of its way to separate “unintelligent” and “mentally disabled”).

Is it “moron’s” history that’s the problem? (I.e., if “moron” had never been adopted as a medical term, would it be acceptable?)



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  1. You know, when we previously talked about this I was leaning more towards the side of not using the word “moron.” But you make quite a convincing case. I also find it interesting that despite his attempts he still seems to valorize intelligence.

    It’s not a word I use much anyway (I prefer “dumbass” or “stupid fucker”).

    I do need to think more about the idea of not insulting people because of intelligence, though. But sometimes, things are just fucking stupid and it has less to do with “intelligence” (whatever that means) and more to do with people doing stupid shit that flies in the face of common sense (like this. I mean come on, what other word is there to describe that besides a bunch of dumbasses doing something really stupid?).

  2. The problem with the dysphemism treadmill is, of course, who gets to decide exactly when a term is sufficiently far-removed from its origins that it has become acceptable for everyday discourse. We can set an ideal benchmark like “once the original targeted community no longer feels like it references them,” you’re pretty much guaranteed to find /someone/ who finds any given term offensive, or at least any term that makes use of some kind of figurative language with human referents, even if this is limited to, say, just Kirk Cameron.

    Ultimately, I don’t think the dysphemism treadmill can be invoked as justification for a particular speech act because it exists only as a descriptive category for large-scale trends in the speech of populations. When a breakdown occurs, it is an example of dialectical difference between speakers on either side of the shift. And as with any other kind of divergence, you can’t appeal to the fact of the shift as some kind of justification or measure of correctness. Both sides are equally valid for their respective populations, and this is only resolved if one variant ceases to exist (which may or may not be influenced by official codification or prestige). This is also true for /any/ word, which means “I don’t find this word to be offensive in my dialect” is either always an acceptable rationale or it isn’t.

    Etymology offers a similar problem: knowing how a word has been used in the past actually says very little about how it is being used in a given situation or how it is understood by a listener, despite the fact that people love to trot out etymologies in order to impugn or defend whatever word is on the table. Plenty of terrible slurs have entirely benign (or at least rather tame) histories, or are considered completely unremarkable except in specific circumstances (“boy” is a good example). Not to mention, an etymology lesson does next to zero good if it’s being used to tell someone why they shouldn’t be offended (even when it is correct, as in the case of “calling a spade a spade”).

    All this to say what? Mainly that I don’t think it’s possible to use any set of logical premises to draw the line for acceptable usage for all speakers of a language, essentially because no two speakers speak exactly the same language. We can (and should) use our knowledge of certain widespread variations among speakers in order to adapt our own speech to what we think will be best understood in a given situation (in a manner akin to enunciating or adopting a more standard accent), but there will always be times when this strategy fails due to inadequate knowledge or a momentary lapse. When it does, getting sidetracked about whether a given word is or isn’t valid and acceptable is about as productive as arguing over any other dialectical variation (i.e. not particularly). If the speaker is concerned with being clearly understood, they should (upon being informed) choose a different formulation that causes fewer problems. Note that a speaker who is aware of the problem when engaging a particular audience yet /chooses/ not to address it or even to exacerbate it falls into a different category.

    I find this a helpful way to think about things because it a) acknowledges that there are no words that are universally inappropriate in all situations (since their meanings are arbitrary social artifacts), b) allows for reclaiming by mutually agreeing speakers, c) avoids classifying some dialects as more correct or morally superior on the basis of arbitrary characteristics rather than the content of utterances

    • Thanks for writing such an extended comment. My main quibble, though, is that my argument wasn’t that the word isn’t offensive. It’s a pejorative, after all. It was that the word did not mean the offensive thing Clarke claimed it meant. I’m also not trying to set a timetable for when a word becomes acceptable. I’m just saying these larger shifts are happening and, as you point out, etymology is not destiny. I don’t know exactly when ‘slattern’ lost the pejorative punch of it’s contemporary equivalent, slut, but it did – and it’s the loss of it’s power as a pejorative that caused it to fall out of use.

      However, it did not lose its denotation in this process, and so it’s unlikely we’ll see it ever re-enter the lexicon as a neutral term (and especially unlikely as a neutral pejorative). The British usage of ‘cunt,’ though, is an interesting example to compare it to, because it has behaved very much like ‘moron’ and gets at the dialectical differences you mention. Cunt has the denotation of female genitalia, but it underwent pejoration and became a slur/insult.

      In the US, it is completely unacceptable to call someone a cunt precisely because the pejorative still has that denotation to most speakers. However, in Britain, it has lost this denotation and morphed into this widely used, gender-neutral pejorative that is even defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “an unpleasant or stupid person!” There’s no need to resolve it, though, since the populations of speakers are geographically isolated.

      I don’t think Clarke is arguing we should reserve the word ‘moron’ for people who are literal morons, though, so I think we’re getting at slightly different phenomena here. Since moron started as a neutral term and became a slur, it’s not following the path you’re laying out with your comparison to a term like ‘boy,’ which has not undergone pejoration (which is not me telling anyone whether they should be offended; the same thing is true of ‘little girl,’ but god help someone who tries to dismiss me with those words).

  3. I do mean for there to e a distinction between a word’s insult value and its ability to cause offense to a targeted community (who are not necessarily the target of the insult, but rather witness to its use). It is exactly that Clarke is not using the word “moron” to refer to literal morons that makes this relevant. There is bound to be a speaker who finds this in poor taste, because for their version of English (even if this is only their personal idiolect), “moron” has not lost enough of its individual meaning. The fact that you or I or Chris Clarke find otherwise is actually not able to change this.

    You say that geographical isolation makes variation in “cunt” a non-issue, but here we are communicating on a global platform, and one where dialectical difference has been held up as insufficient excuse for use of the word! I also meant to point out that this kind of difference can exist in geographically overlapping dialects as well, and that’s when it causes problems. Words in the process of being reclaimed suffer from this: two speakers can be neighbours (or even friends or relatives) and still not agree as to whether a particular word is sufficiently reclaimed for general use, or even use in a given situation. This is a dialectical difference, and speakers are often aware of such a difference and will not use the word in situations where they think it could be problematic (because others don’t find it to be sufficiently reclaimed).

    • It looks like there’s a double standard. Why is dialect a sufficient justification to demand one stop using a word, while at the same time it’s an “insufficient excuse” for a speaker to use a word? If no dialect is “right” then why does one need an excuse to use a word, at all?

      • Oh I don’t think it is sufficient justification to /demand/ someone stop using a given word. I think it is sufficient to /request/ someone use another word, and a speaker who is informed that a particular word is not communicating their meaning effectively ought to choose another one, provided their goal is effective communication of the original idea. But that doesn’t mean that their original choice was “wrong” in a moral sense, just that it wasn’t effective. And it is perfectly reasonable for a speaker to say “I’m sorry this caused offense–it is a neutral term in my dialect so none was intended” and have this be accepted by the offended party with no hard feelings. This is really ideal whether or not the speaker thinks the offense is reasonable or misinformed (whether due to a common sense of etymological drift like “moron” or a genuine misunderstanding of the word’s meaning, like “niggardly”).

        This is, of course, assuming that the goal of the speaker was not actually going out of their way to use what they know will be perceived as inflammatory language.

  4. While I 100% agree with you that languages change, and that words like “idiot” are probably so far gone that it would be crazy to suggest we censor them, I think the fact that we’re still having the discussion about moron says that there’s still some note of the original definition in usage today. I do in fact think of mental disability when I hear the word moron, which to me says that it’s still at least partially around in common discourse.
    In addition, I do think that insulting someone’s intelligence is really not very useful UNLESS they are trying to force their stupid on other people (e.g. trying to legislate rape when you think that someone can’t get pregnant from rape). Unintelligence on its own is not a fault, but harming other people through your unintelligence is a fault, as well as simply remaining deaf to basic facts. I don’t think we have any moral obligation to be perfectly rational or smart or know all the facts. I do think that when we’re arguing about something we have an obligation to try to obtain the facts, and when we’re trying to legislate or affect change in some arena, we should try to be aware of the facts for fear of hurting others out of ignorance. Only in those cases where someone’s stupid is really affecting others should it be used as an insult.

    • So would you agree that low intelligence/ stupidity is an inherently negative condition? It sounds like you would expect people with low intelligence to be aware of it and also know their place to an extent. The Dunning Kruger effect would tend to make that difficult.

  5. Yessenia, interesting discussion.

    Some time ago on Skepchick I was called out quite rightly for referring to DJ Grothe’s comments as “retarded”. In subsequent threads on this topic of ableist language I was thinking much the same as you are now – i.e. is it the word itself or the meaning that causes olffence? I then made a comment using words direct from the dictionary definition, namely “slow or limited in intellectual or emotional development or academic progress” and nobody picked me up on that.

    So based on that I tend to suspect that the word itself is what carries the baggage and not the meaning. I realise of course that one anecdote =/= data.

    And yet, and yet, no matter what – we have a duty in a democracy to call out, in strong and vivid language, those in public life whose intellect is so often and so clearly not up to the mark! At the same time we need to minimise fallout on those we least wish to hurt or offend.

    • I’ve really tried hard lately (I’m not perfect!) to call ideas or behaviors stupid instead of people. I have tended to conflate the two, which is why I’m glad Yessenia brought this up. It’s allowed me to separate them more easily in my mind for some reason.

      All kinds of people can do and say really stupid things that have no bearing on their actual intelligence.

      • The same really ought to be true for lots of things we find problematic: it’s almost always more productive to call a statement or action misogynist/racist/able-ist/etc. than it is to call a person the same (even if if is often likely the person will conflate these anyway, at least it provides the opportunity to clarify after). It also helps sort out the intent problem.

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