Jersey Reflections: IQ Terminology

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Jersey Reflections


By Vince Farinaccio


A Columnist for the Grapevine


Dr. Henry H. Goddard, director of research at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys, coined the term “moron” in 1910.
VINELAND - Early in the 2015 film Secret in Their Eyes, now making the rounds on home video and On Demand, a character dismisses one of his colleagues as a “moron.” It’s a matter of mere name-calling, but another character is quick to explain that the word chosen for the insult is actually a medical term. A moment later Ray Kasten, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, traces its origins, placing it in the realm of early 20th century psychology and providing an explanation of how it reflects a higher intelligence quotient (IQ) than its companion insults, “imbecile” and “idiot.” Kasten chides his fellow worker, suggesting that the word he probably meant to use was “idiot,” the lowest of the IQ ratings.
The scene is not one of the key moments in movie, but its discussion of the dated psychological meaning of those three words becomes an unintended allusion to the ghost of Vineland’s past, for it was here that the term “moron” was coined in 1910 by Dr. Henry H. Goddard, director of research at the Vineland Training School for Feeble-Minded Girls and Boys from 1906 to 1918. And Goddard’s use of the word became a cornerstone for his promotion of eugenics.
The fact that today a candidate campaigning for the U.S. presidency can loosely toss around the term “moron” illustrates how inured we’ve become over the use of the word. But when it was created, it was a classification for anyone whose IQ fell within the range of 51 to 70, just as someone who registered between 26 and 50 was labeled an “imbecile” and a person scoring from 0 to 25 was determined to be an “idiot.” But classifying individuals in such a way also carried with it a preconceived judgment.
According to David Ketterer in Flashes of the Fantastic, “To Goddard and his colleagues, an idiot couldn’t handle speech; an imbecile couldn’t handle written language. A moron was something else again, a ‘high-grade defective,’ a person who had language skill but was nevertheless of substandard intelligence.”
Goddard derived “moron” from the Greek word moros, which means “dull,” its uncomplimentary origin similar to that of the Latin word imbecillus (weak-minded), from which we get the term “imbecile.”  The Greek, Latin, and Middle English words for “idiot” all describe an uneducated or ignorant person without implying a learning disability.
Within several years, Goddard was being acclaimed for his addition to our vocabulary.
In the article “The Measure of Human Ability” published in the April 17, 1913 issue of the Journal of Education, William Eastbrook Chancellor hailed Goddard as having “invented a word that seems to fill ‘a long-felt want’morons. It is on the way to fame. Where one man used it a year ago and a score of men half a year later, thousands are now using it. Moron, moronic, moronous [sic], and moronity [sic] are all now threatening to become parts of our English language.”
What Chancellor failed to foresee was how the word moron could become so controversial and suspect. As Ketterer explains, “In a journal in 1910, Goddard gave a hair-raisingly broad definition of moron: ‘It is defined as one who is lacking in intelligence, one who is deficient in judgment or sense.’”
For Goddard, individuals who fell under his new classification consisted of less-than-desirable citizens who posed more of a threat to the well-being of humanity than “idiots” and “imbeciles.” “To Goddard,” Ketterer writes, “alcoholics, criminals…unemployed ‘ne’er do wells,’ [are] all persons who are incapable of adapting themselves to their environment and living up to the conventions of society or acting sensibly…The moron was a far more pressing social problem than the idiot and the imbecile, whose deficiencies were obvious.
Idiots and imbeciles were institutionalized as a matter of course. The moron, however, could ‘pass,’ and therefore society’s leaders—that is, the intelligent—must be ever-vigilant in identifying and controlling the morons, lest they pass unnoticed, reproduce themselves and diminish the race.”
The word, along with idiot and imbecile, was eventually dropped from use in the psychological field once it had become tainted by its association with the eugenics movement. But it remains in our lexicon, a haunting reminder of how dangerous certain words can be.