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There are few words in normal usage in the English language more likely to get you into trouble than ” idiot”. No matter how it is used, it rarely ends well.

People may say this of other, stronger words – words of abuse – words that are washed out of the mouths of schoolboys with lye soap. They’re bad, but nowhere near as dangerous as “idiot”. You see, “idiot” is very nearly scientific and respectable. So was Edward Teller, and look at what he made…

Leaving the ever-changing scientific definitions of intellectual impairment alone, and also not wishing to saddle people so adjudged with further torment, we come to the use of the word now as a pejorative. Commit a foolish act on the road and you are an idiot. Make some mistake in your job and you are an idiot. Offend the rich and entitled and you are an idiot.

It is also used as the bait in any number of social traps. ” Do you think I’m an idiot?’ or ” Do I look like an idiot?’ are two invitations to take the fight further. In both cases it is difficult to know whether the questioner would like yes or no for an answer. It all depends upon whether they think they can beat you verbally or physically. Make your own judgement before replying.

You can be a bit more specific if they ask you ” What kind of an idiot do you take me for?”. In this case, ” incautious” is a good answer. That puts the ball firmly back into their court and they are generally on the wrong foot to parry it.

” I’m such an idiot.” said by someone who wants your sympathy is also a dangerous moment. If you say ” Yes. Yes, you are.” you may think you are being sympathetic and helpful but you are tickling a land mine…Best to just murmur ” No no, nononono…” and edge for the door.

” Idiot-proof” is seen in advertisements sometimes to promote confidence in a product. Reflect that people make products and G_d makes idiotic people and consider who is likely to be ahead of the game…

” Idiotic” as a description is useful, nevertheless. If it can be applied to ideas rather than people it can at least alert us to look more closely at them and at what they are composed of. Sometimes the use of the term points out the failings of the speaker rather than the ideas. Many inventions were idiotic until they were actually assembled and then marketed. Of course some have gotten as far as being staples of a national culture but still remained idiotic – which says something about the nation that embraces them.

And we must remember that the term is perfectly acceptable in the lingua franca of the political world. Every opponent who cannot rise to the status of villain or pariah can at least be an idiot. If they switch sides and join our party they can become heroes.

Heroes is the back side of idiots.





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