Picture the scene: a cheap recording studio in a basement in a once-elegant street alongside the Clyde in Glasgow. In a small booth (a floor-to-ceiling cubicle, usually used for recording voices), a man hunches over an acoustic guitar to record the backing track of a simple song he has played a thousand times. It’s different when you’re just playing it, rather than singing at the same time. You’d think it would be easier, but with no melody line or words to guide him the man becomes too aware of what he is doing. He loses track of where he is: how many more times does he have to play this sequence before the verse ends and the chorus starts? Halfway through he fouls it up and stops.
Through the microphone the engineer hears a muttered “You f***ing moron.” It’s the guitarist talking to himself. And that guitarist was me.
What I didn’t realize was that I was using a technical term formerly used by psychologists to define an individual’s intellectual level.
The word “moron” was coined by a psychologist in 1910, based on a Greek word meaning “dull”.
I used the word deliberately because it seemed more appropriate than the other options: idiot, imbecile, pillock, berk and on down the list to profanities. In fact the first and second in that list are also technical terms. “Moron” was originally used to describe someone with an IQ of 51-70, which is higher than that of an imbecile (26-50) and an idiot (0-25). The average IQ is between 90 and 110. Einstein clocked up 160.
I used moron because it sounds duller than the others. There is something exotic in the Frenchness of imbecile, while an idiot appears in my mind as a slightly hysterical, unpredictable figure. But moron sounds just plain dull, colourless, lifeless.
The psychological terms have fallen out of favour in these non-judgmental days, when any term that could conjure up negative connotations is quickly stamped out and replaced by something watered down or obscure.
The list of informal options (I found this one online) is a long one. Dope, ninny, chump, dimwit, goon, dumbo, dummy, dum-dum, dumb-bell, loon, jackass, bonehead, fathead, numbskull, dunderhead, chucklehead, knucklehead, muttonhead, pudding-head, thickhead, wooden-head, airhead, pinhead, lamebrain, pea-brain, birdbrain, zombie, jerk, nerd, dipstick, donkey, noodle.
Notice how it went distinctly American in places? And yet it includes dipstick, as popularised by the British sitcom Only Fools and Horses.
The same site then gives us a category called British informal, which ranges from old fashioned (nit, nitwit, twit) to the current favourite numpty, along with such essentials as berk, prat, pillock, wally, git, wazzock, divvy, nerk, dork, twerp, mug and muppet.
I remember a conversation a few years ago in the office of a local radio station, where a rather strange young man had just started appearing, on work experience. He wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t unpleasant, so he wasn’t really a pillock or a git; he was just a bit slow and a committee of us decide the word was plonker. Not even a fully-fledged one, but a bit of a plonker (another Only Fools staple). Harmless, forgivable, almost endearing.
It is said that the Inuit have many different words for snow, although the current received pub-talk wisdom is that that is not true.
I wonder if they sit around in igloos and discuss the number of English words that can describe an unintelligent person.