Words like stupid, idiot, and dumb ... a discussion of permissible use


Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels was great (provided school was in session so the lines weren’t insane) but damn.

I actually caught one of those “Greatest Waterpark” shows and was surprised when Schlitterbahn wasn’t the top pick.

I guess this is what happens.

Damn Morons.


Can you not use that damned word? I know, everyone uses it. But it’s not as if people with intellectual and/or neurological disabilities are doing this, or doing the damned administration…

I understand where you are coming from:

And I will keep that in mind, but I also feel the meaning has drifted sufficiently that it no longer is truly a medically used descriptive.


I understand where you are coming from on this but what word do you propose instead?

“If this person were a bit more worldly-wise/not so focussed on their own goals at the expense of everything else/had thought through the consequences of their actions a bit more/were a bit less intellectually sub-par, they would not have done what they did” is a fairly universal part of the human experience.

Sadly, every single noun and adjective that we have available to us in the English language to describe this universal part of the human experience has, at some point, been used to describe people with disabilities. I would argue that that has more to do with past misunderstandings of disability than any genuine malice on the part of the people using those words today.

The baggage that surrounds all of these words has, over time, been lost. I don’t think that when an average person in 2018 calls another person an “idiot” they are specifically referencing past usage of the term to refer to Downs syndrome, and I think you are being disingenuous if you claim to think that is the case.

Every single day of my life, I encounter people who make bad decisions because they haven’t properly thought through the consequences of their actions, or who don’t have the wherewithal to think them through from start to finish.

Until you can suggest to me a reasonable alternative word to describe these people, I reserve the right to call them “idiots” (or any other term that we use in modern English to describe “stupid” people) despite the fact that a few hundred years ago, people misused these words to describe people with learning difficulties.


I don’t think so. I think that word still carries the attitude that people are less-than because of intellectual and/or neurological disabilities, and its use in forced sterilization reflects how far that attitude can lead to violence. I can’t suggest anything to replace it, because frankly, I’d rather just get rid of it.

While this is an important discussion to be had, could it maybe be spun off into its own thread (and there, people might see it).


I’d like to see the conversation on this as it has been an issue for me as a moderator to know how to handle this.

Usually I have requested that the person who wrote the flagged post edit it on their own so it reflects their own word choice.


Thanks for splitting.

Words change, they evolve. For better or worse.

If I can literally no longer cringe when literally is used for figureatively I think we can see that not only the word but the greater context of the conversation needs to be taken on the whole.

Let’s start with the fact that I would say the vast number of people who speak English don’t know the root of the word Moron.

When @MarjaE called out my post

I had to go and read my post to figure out what I had said that could be offensive. It was fairly obvious, and I had a inkling of an idea about it’s etymology, but I did need to Google for the exact quote I posted.

Let’s take the “R-word” I think the first time I remember hearing the term applied to someone was when my 3d Grade Music teacher used it to describe Johnny who had been hitting me with the tambourine and tried to break my glasses. (Looking back now, Johnny suffered from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome)

“You’ll have to forgive him, dear. He’s retarded” was along the words she said.

But outside of that instance, I don’t remember ever using the word to describe someone or thing except in what had become common parlance of the day. As in, “Craig, that idea to steal the jar of sodium out of the chemistry lab is retarded.” It was (and frankly still is) a word to denote something that has gone beyond the pale of “Stupid.”

I guess early Aughts is when I began to catch on that it was a word that had fallen on the “Do Not Use” list. It took me a while to accept that it was more than just hand wringing and pearl clutching as it was not a term I heard on any sort of a regular basis, but I finally got the memo and signed off on it.

But I haven’t seen the memo on “Idiot”, “Imbecile”, or “Moron”.

Specifically (IOBTI)

According to British legal stature:

  • an idiot is an individual with an IQ of less than 20
  • an imbecile has an IQ of between 20 and 49
  • a moron an IQ between 50 and 69

@MarjaE - you have expressed your desire to not see the word. I will try my best to not utilize it, but will also not commit to it.

Much like my workplace. Conference calls, meetings with other business units and consultants, I am the model of professionalism. If it is just the poor bastards that I work with on a regular basis, I can be a swearin’ motherfucker.


It is idiocy to prescribe linguistic policy.


In my experience, “stupid” seems to be the only one usually used to label actions, rather than people.

I think “cretin” and “retard” and “special” were introduced to try to avoid the connotations of older labels, but ended up taking on the connotations instead.

TVTropes often fails this test, but…

1 Like

And yet I bet you’re not cool with calling people retarded, or insulting things by calling them gay. We can’t prescribe the meaning of a term, but we can make it clear that when you use it you’re deriding more than just the thing you insult. And that’s not what most of us want.

My immediate association for both “moron” and “idiot” has been the Greek roots, and with them in such common use it didn’t occur to me anyone still associated them with Goddard, the way I sort of did with “imbecile”. But it plainly turns out some people still do, including some disabled people. I don’t want to be awful to such people, and so now I’ve been trying to avoid them.

I’ll admit, it isn’t trivial to avoid them. Not only are they so common as to be almost reflexive, but they have a cutting tone that many other insults lack, which feels hard to give up. But then it occurs to me that it might be the same cutting tone “retard” had – the cut from comparison to disabled people and how worthless they’re imagined to be. If so, that wouldn’t be worth it to me.

English has lots of words to insult people with. I think you can say someone is brainless without the ableist connotations of brain-damaged. Probably fool or dolt or nimrod or ignoramus or numbskull isn’t so bad; people here can I’m sure suggest others. And when that’s too soft, often what’s really meant can be spelled out another way, like when someone regardless of intelligence is a selfish, inept, odious asshole. I think there’s enough that we’re not losing much.

The only real question to me is how much to avoid comics, sketches, and so on that use them, things which are often otherwise funny but wouldn’t be for everyone. What did we do with all the old stuff that used the R-word and homosexual insults? I’m assuming we either moved on or labeled it a product of its time, but it’s harder to do when the time is now.


In general use, I’ve always tended to hear “moron” associated with an extreme lack of wisdom in either an action or person, as opposed to “idiot” which usually implies a lack of intelligence. I can’t remember ever seeing it used to specifically label a disability, and even feel like doing so would be a bit taboo.

Of course, my first thought of a replacement was the old Bugs Bunny “what a maroon”, and then I discovered that the dictionary definition there could also lead to being taken very wrongly.


I think at the root of this lies the uncomfortable realization that unenlightened humans privilege intelligence and wisdom over the absence of such elite traits.

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal
before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter
than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was
stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the
211th, 212th, and 213 th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing
vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.


I’ve noticed a trend (in some aspects of general society, not specifically here) to label some words as generally prejudicial, pejorative, or offensive when they’re clearly not intended that way. Language changes. Initially “retarded” was meant to be a less offensive term for idiot, moron, or imbecile, yet it’s become more offensive, to the point that some people don’t use it or won’t spell it out even if it’s a reasonable use. On the one hand, I do not wish to offend anyone personally, but at the same time I find the perversion of language to be offensive. It’s a dilemma.


I assume when people use terms like “idiot” and “moron” they do mean it literally: referring to people whose mental development never went past a certain juvenile level and are incapable of complex adult thought.

And can I say – as someone who personally doesn’t care about this particular usage – that seeing “damned” used as a pejorative in a complaint against pejoratives was rich.


I’ve done this rant before in more detail, but I’ll keep it brief this time.

An insult always cuts two ways. It has to, by the nature of being an insult.

The first, obvious way that it cuts is against the person being insulted. It’s saying “You are [X], and that makes you inferior.”

Most people don’t think about the second way that the insult cuts, and that is against everyone else who can be described as [X]. By saying, “You are [X] and therefore you are inferior,” you’re also necessarily saying “Everyone who is [X] is inferior.”

There’s the part that you have to be careful of. Before you insult someone, and I mean every time you think of insulting someone, think of who/what else you’re insulting before you do so.

By the logic above, I’d say that it’s one of the few insults that is kinder to the group of comparison than to the person being insulted. “Damned” literally means destined for Hell, which (you’d think) would be reserved for only the most evil of people. It should be among the very worst of insults, but it’s usually considered fairly mild (and certainly milder than “fucking”), which is rather perverse.


When I hear someone call someone one of the discussed terms, I hear “You (are acting like a) ____!” much as I don’t expect to see a phallus residing upon a set of shoulders when I hear another insult used.

The answer of course is to avoid the use of insults. But when an individual’s greed has endangered others and lead to such a horrific loss, seems to me a fairly mild one was used.


I disagree, for words like stupid and idiot. The intent may not necessarily be there, especially when some powerless individual is just complaining about the world. I do agree that people might infer intent, but that’s their problem, IMHO. I understand this is not the case for other words that have definitely been hurtful, like the n-word.

And how do you mean “inferior” when using the word “stupid?” “Inferior” like, “oh christ, all these people should grow up/stop watching Fox News/do some reading and educate themselves?” Or “inferior” like “all these people should be gassed?” Again, people might infer the latter, but is that really the fault of the writer?

Furthermore, “stupid” doesn’t necessarly equal “inferior.” I am incredibly stupid (i.e., willfully ignorant) on things like philosophy and European history. I say willfully, because I have lacked the desire to educate myself. I excuse myself by saying that I know a fair amount about science and engineering, something about US politics of the last 40 years, and a little (very little) about modern art. So I would call someone who is against abortion even for very extreme reasons (rape, etc.) “stupid,” because IMO they have failed to educate themselves on issues like women’s rights, power politics, religion vs. science, and so on, or, if they have, have failed to come to conclusions that help more people than hurt.


If you mean “willfully ignorant,” why not say “willfully ignorant,” rather than something that might be construed as “born less intelligent” (or, as that often means, “born with different intellectual strengths”)?

I have no problem as “willfully ignorant” as an insult; it’s precise, it’s descriptive of behaviour rather than inherent traits, and it’s pretty much unambiguously a bad thing.

I could quite legitimately use the word “retarded” to describe a racecar driver who steered into the wall and cut a tire. Their car has a disadvantage which makes it move more slowly, which is literally what the word “retarded” means. I am not ever going to use that word in that scenario, because it’s ambiguous, and one of the possible meanings is extremely offensive.

If the writer cannot convey their meaning clearly to the majority of their audience, then yes, that’s the fault of the write. If they can, and some willfully ignorant member of the audience misconstrues it, then no, that’s not the writer’s fault (although they should still reflect to see if there was a clearer way to present the idea).


To be concise. Stupid has two syllables, not six.

I would never use the word “retarded.” The English language has changed such that the word is, as you say, offensive (maybe it always was). I do not believe “stupid” has that connotation. Maybe it will in the future, but that time, in my opinion, has not come.

I forgot to mention that writing is another place I’m not entirely stupid, however one might interpret it. I’ve written & published three dozen scientific/engineering papers that have been noted for being especially clear by internal & peer review (whether or not scientifically useful), not to mention a couple of science fiction stories. Literary excellence I don’t claim to; clarity I do.

1 Like