A Five-Letter Word
If you tell someone he is his own man, you’re not insulting him. If you call him an idiot, however, it’s a different story.
The word idiot wasn’t always a bad word. Greek adjective “idios” means “one’s own” or “private.” The derivative noun “idiotes” means “private person.”
A Greek idiotes, however, wasn’t exactly “his own man.” He was a person who was not in the public eye. A person who held no public office was a “common man” and, some time later, inevitably, an “ignorant person.” The word then became “idiota” in Latin, “idiote” in French, and, eventually, an English word in the thirteenth century.
According to Webster’s Word Histories, in 1590, an English lawyer named Henry Swinburne defined idiot: “ An Idiote, or a naturall foole is he, who notwithstanding he bee of lawfull age, yet he is so witless, that hee can not number to twentie, nor can tell what age he is of, nor knoweth who is his father, or mother, nor is able to answer to any such easie question.”
The word “idiot” is now defined by Merriam-Webster as 1) a foolish or stupid person; 2) (dated, now offensive) a person affected with extreme intellectual disability.