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OnWords: 'Idiot'


I started worrying about the word “idiot” while discussing whether or not our smartphones are making us stupid.

The word “idiot” shares its roots with words such as “idiom” and “idiopathic” from an ancient Greek word meaning “private.”

“Idiot” as we know it quickly took on a negative denotation, and by the time it got to Latin, it had achieved its present insulting form. And it’s easy to see why: those who are immersed in their own private worlds are oblivious to what’s going on around them, unable to interact in any publicly meaningful way.

For cultures that value the social niceties, people who were essentially private, lacking the sophistication for public discourse, would certainly appear idiotic.

In this sense, smartphones do appear to be making us idiots: heads down, we tap and swipe, more concerned with our individual Snapchats, texts, and tweets than with the people present to us, with public affairs, or even with traffic.

Ironically, this kind of idiocy has taken a very public turn, as Twitter and Facebook apps make all those otherwise private thoughts available to all. You’d think that these technologies would collapse the relationship between being an idiot and being stuck in our own little worlds.

But they seem to have had the opposite effect: instead of making us less idiotic, these devices seem to be spreading it around, rendering the private public, revealing the lack of sophistication that seems to dwell within us all.

Lael Ewy is a co-founder and editor of EastWesterly Review, a journal of literary satire at www.postmodernvillage.com, and a writer whose work has appeared in such venues as Denver Quarterly and New Orleans Review and has been anthologized in Troubles Swapped for Something Fresh.