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Saturday Stub: Old Psychology was Insulting

Posted by Ethan Clow on March 12, 2011

As usual, my incessant internet surfing has unearthed more quasi-skeptical insights that I will now share with my beloved readers.

It turns out, early psychology was rather insulting. Or at the very least, on the wrong side of good taste.

A fellow named Henry H. Goddard, circa 1866 – 1957, was an American psychologist who came up with a ranking system for Alfred Binet’s IQ tests.


Now, Goddard was also one of the first in America to study mental retardation and he wanted to come up with a system of organizing the degrees of mental impairment that he encountered.  Goddard used the terms moron for those with an IQ of 51-70, imbecile for those with an IQ of 26-50, and idiot for those with an IQ of 0-25 for categories of increasing impairment.

In fact, the term “moron” was coined by Goddard and further, anyone who he thought was a “moron” should be “removed from society” either through institutionalization, sterilization, or both.

Obviously things change. Terms like “mental retardation” and “idiot” are no longer appropriate for medical circles. While the American Association on Mental Retardation continued to use the term mental retardation until 2006, in June 2006 its members voted to change the name of the organization to the “American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.”

Other offensive/inappropriate terms like “Mongolism” referring to Down Syndrome were also changed (although the term is still used in several medical establishments) In fact, Mongolia requested that the World Health Organization stop using the term “mongolism” to refer to Down Syndrome in 1965.

Thankfully, “moron,” “imbecile” and “idiot” are no longer used in classifying developmental disabilities.

“Mild mental retardation, “severe/moderate mental retardation” and “profound mental retardation” have replaced those terms.

As for Goddard, since he did coin the term and it seems a shame to waste a word…Henry H. Goddard, you are a moron.


2 Responses to “Saturday Stub: Old Psychology was Insulting”

  1. The association of the word with the condition is what gives the word stigma. He could have termed the levels different, special and challenged rather than moron, imbecile and idiot… and you would be writing today how “challenged” Mr. Goddard was to label anyone with such hurtful words. We are well on the way to the point where differently-abled and special are used more often as insults and their re-purposed use falls out of favour. Retard has long been off the table and retardation is following it. They will have to go looking for alternate descriptors that are at best intellectually dishonest euphemisms and at worst are linguistically antonymous to the actual condition and as such take perfectly good words out of our vocabulary.

  2. Ethan Clow said

    It’s not a question of using “hurtful words.” Goddard coined the word “moron” but he just co-opted the words idiot and imbecile, which already had negative connotations attached to them. In addition, he was using the terms as a pejorative, his idea to deal with “morons” was to either forcefully incarcerate them or sterilize them. That goes beyond mere “word association.”

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