The Word Idiot Meant Something Totally Different In Ancient Greece

"You're an idiot." "That's idiotic." "What an idiot!" Or what a moron, imbecile, dunderhead, big ole' dumb-dumb, and so forth. Yes, English is full of fun terms that mean roundabouts the same thing. Apparently, there were lots of idiots in our collective past, or just a great need to insult folk because we've got loads of subtly nuanced ways to differentiate between pejorative designations for the same caste of an individual: The idiot.

But did you know that people have always been idiots? Shocking, we know. Everywhere, all the time, even in places as historically revered and regaled as ancient Greece (or at least ancient Athenian Greece, but that's another story). Greece was the birthplace of democracy, it's said, starting roughly with the statesman Solon, as Greeka explains. Within Greek soil stretches the roots of philosophical inquiry ala Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato, as Students of History overviews. Greece gave us the blueprint for all forms of theatrical stage performance in its 5th-century B.C.E. Golden Age thanks to standout playwrights like Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Euripides, per the Canadian Museum of History. 

But here's a question: What percentage of the population actually did those things? Contrarily, what percentage of the population just sat around picking their nose while saying, "duh"? That last question illustrates the origin of the modern English word "idiot." Namely, an idiot in ancient Greece was someone who didn't take an active role in democratic processes, didn't participate in society, and shirked their responsibilities to others.

Duty to one's fellows

When folks think of ancient Greece, they'd be incorrect if they imagined a nation with a single, unified government. Greece, thanks in part to its rocky terrain that made cross-city communication difficult, was more of a loose collective of associated city-states. As Wondrium Daily explains, Greece was separated into no less than around 1,000 such city-states, each with its own ruling bodies, laws, traditions, etc., but bound by the same language and central notion of Greek-ness, so to speak. Certain heavy-hitting city-states stand out in history and memory: Sparta, Athens, Corinth, Thebes, Syracuse, and more. But out of all of these, Athens emerged as the heart of the democracy, philosophy, and art that formed the bedrock of Western civilization.

And Athens, like other city-states, took its public life very seriously. It was completely unacceptable to shy away from one's duties to one's community and fellow citizens. The polis — the assembled people and identity of the city — was more important than the individual. As Tales of Times Forgotten states, the Greek philosopher Aristotle actually defined a human as an "animal in a polis." Without the polis and its civilized life and legal, democratic processes, a person was no better than a beast. In Athens, it was actually illegal to not participate in elections (if you were eligible), and those who opted out were slashed with red paint and issued a fine. Such a person was an "idiot," translated as "a private person."

The idiocy of non-involvement

As Tales of Times Forgotten describes, the Greek word idiot — "a private person" — derives from another word, idios, meaning "of one's own." Idios is now part of our modern word idiosyncratic, used to describe individuals, things, situations, etc., that are singular and odd in their uniqueness. While we take idiosyncratic to relate a neutral value — neither derogatory nor laudatory — ancient Greeks like those in Athens definitely meant idios and its derivative words to condemn and deride. Considering the demands of the polis and the expectation of engaged involvement in one's community, "idiot" became an insult hurled at societal slackers. Later on, the word idiot, like innumerable elements of Greek civic life, was adopted by Latin-speaking Romans as a word familiar to any modern-day Spanish, Italian, or Portuguese speaker: "Idiota." At that point, the modern meaning stuck. 

That being said, the Athenian philosopher Plato described how an idiot in the original Greek sense was also an idiot in the modern sense, saying (via Tales of Times), "The greatest penalty is to be ruled under an evil person, if one does not take initiative in politics." In other words, who else but an idiot wouldn't take an active hand in the very forces that govern one's own life? Is it not idiotic to not participate, and then complain when things go wrong? Is it not idiotic to be shocked when petty, cruel, or self-interested forces step into the gap of an uninvolved public? Plato definitely would have said yes.