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Idiot vs. Moron: What's the Difference?

The Dilemma: You want to assail someone's intelligence, but you don't know quite what word to use, which calls into question your own intellect.

Materials Needed: An IQ test would be helpful, but you can get by on just your wits—provided you have enough of them.

People You Can Impress: Well, idiots and morons both, for starters. But also psychologists. And you really, really need to impress psychologists, because—as you'll see—you really don't want them to think you're an idiot.

Quick Trick: These days, the words are completely synonymous. But back in the dark days of psychology (which is to say until about 30 years ago), there was a difference, and here's the quick trick psychologists used: Ask a question. If your subject answers, they're a moron at worst. If they don't answer, you might have an idiot on your hands.

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The Reason: Anyone who says that political correctness never accomplished anything worthwhile should take a long, hard look at the lot of the idiot. In 1911, French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon created the first modern intelligence test, which calculated IQ based on whether children could accomplish tasks like pointing to their nose (honestly) and counting pennies. The concept of "IQ" followed soon after, and psychologists fell so deeply in love with the scientific nature of the tests that they created classification systems. Any child with an IQ of above 70 was considered "normal," while kids above 130 were considered "gifted." To deal with kids below 70, psychologists invented a nomenclature of retardation. Those with IQs between 51 and 70 were called morons. Morons had adequate learning skills to complete menial tasks and communicate. Imbeciles, with IQs between 26 and 50, never progressed past a mental age of about six. And the lowest of all were the idiots, with IQs between 0 and 24, who were characterized by poor motor skill, extremely limited communication, and little response to stimulus.

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The moron/imbecile/idiot classification remained popular, amazingly, until the early 1970s, when people started to note that the developmentally disabled have enough difficulties without being saddled with condescending labels. The 70s saw the move away from institutionalizing the developmentally disabled, and it has since been shown that the majority of people with IQs below 70 can lead productive and independent lives. Not to sound like Tom Cruise or anything, but the real morons in this story were the psychologists. Today, the classification system is one category broader—moron, imbecile, and idiot have been replaced with mild, moderate, severe, and profound retardation—and diagnostic factors other than IQ are considered in making a diagnosis.

Also Good to Know: The doubly offensive term "Mongolian Idiot," which in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an actual, literal diagnosis, derives from people's belief that individuals with Down Syndrome—with their wide-set eyes and round faces—resembled Mongolians. In fact, before the British physician JHL Down (1829-1896) lent his name to the chromosomal syndrome, Down Syndrome was known merely as "Mongolism."

And there you have it. Now you know whether you're working with idiots or morons. Need more clarification in your life? Check out What's the Difference, a mental_floss book written by John Green, Chris Connolly, Christopher Smith, and (yours truly) Maggie Koerth-Baker.

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Can You Decipher the Playful 1817 Letter Jane Austen Sent to Her Niece in Code?
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Jane Austen—homebrewer, musician, and, oh, one of the most famous novelists in the English language—didn’t limit her prose to the fictional world. She was a prolific correspondent, sending missives to friends and relatives (and occasionally soliciting feedback on her work). Some of these were quite playful, as a letter highlighted recently on the Two Nerdy History Girls blog shows.

Austen’s 1817 letter to her young niece, Cassandra Esten Austen, is a bit hard to read even if you are an expert in 19th century handwriting styles. That’s because all the words are spelled backwards. Instead of signing off with “Good bye my dear Cassy,” for instance, Austen wrote “Doog eyb ym raed Yssac.” The letter served as both a New Year’s greeting and a puzzle for the 8-year-old to solve.

A close-up of a handwritten letter with words written backwards
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

The letter is currently on view at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City as part of the museum’s "Treasures From the Vault" exhibition, having been donated to the institution in 1975 by a Jane Austen collector and Morgan Library regular named Alberta Burke.

While any of Austen’s communications would be of interest to fans and literary scholars, this one is particularly unique as a historical object. In it, Austen wishes Cassandra a happy new year and writes about a visit she received from six of Cassandra’s cousins the day before, telling her about the cake they ate, feeding robins, Frank’s Latin studies, and Sally’s new green dress.

A handwritten letter from Jane Austen
The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 1034.6. Photography by Schecter Lee, 2009.

“Those simple details give a sense of the texture of Austen’s everyday life—and that she thinks to communicate them to her young niece makes clear that ‘Aunt Jane’ knew just the kinds of tidbits a child of that age would relish,” Christine Nelson, the Morgan’s literary and historic manuscripts curator, tells Mental Floss.

Austen would die just six months later, making it a valuable look at the end of her life. As far as we know, no other backwards-written letters like the one sent to Cassandra have survived in Austen’s archives, according to Nelson, but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if the famous author wrote more. “Given her love of riddles and linguistic games (which comes through, of course, in her novels), I have to believe that other family members were the recipients of similarly playful epistolary gifts,” Nelson says.

If you make it to New York City, you can go decode the letter yourself in person. It will be on display at the Morgan Library until March 11, 2018.

[h/t Two Nerdy History Girls]

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This 1940 Film on Road Maps Will Make You Appreciate Map Apps Like Never Before
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images
Douglas Grundy, Three Lions/Getty Images

In the modern era, we take for granted having constantly updated, largely accurate maps of just about every road in the world at our fingertips. If you need to find your way through a city or across a country, Google Maps has your back. You no longer have to go out and buy a paper map.

But to appreciate just what a monstrous task making road maps and keeping them updated was in decades past, take a look at this vintage short film, "Caught Mapping," spotted at the Internet Archive by National Geographic.

The 1940 film, produced by the educational and promotional company Jam Handy Organization (which created films for corporations like Chevrolet), spotlights the difficult task of producing and revising maps to keep up with new road construction and repair.

The film is a major booster of the mapmaking industry, and those involved in it come off as near-miracle workers. The process of updating maps involved sending scouts out into the field to drive along every road and note conditions, compare the roads against topographical maps, and confirm mileage figures. Then, those scouts reported back to the draughtsmen responsible for producing revised maps every two weeks. The draughtsmen updated the data on road closures and other changes.

Once those maps were printed, they were "ready to give folks a good steer," as the film's narrator puts it, quietly determining the success of any road trip in the country.

"Presto! and right at their fingertips, modern motorists can have [information] on any road they wish to take." A modern marvel, really.

[h/t National Geographic]

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