|Portrait of a man affected by cretinism|
(photograph by Eugène Trutat)
Noun. Late 18th century.
[French crétin from Swiss French creitin, crestin from Latin Christianus.]
1 MEDICINE. A person afflicted with cretinism. L18
2 A fool; a person who behaves stupidly. L19
cretinism MEDICINE n. mental handicap, deficient growth, and coarseness of the skin and facial features due to congenital lack of thyroid hormone E19
If, like me, you've ever been called a cretin (thank you very much, Mr You-Know-Who, maths teacher extraordinaire), then you were assailed with an 18th century epithet referring to cretinism or, as it's now called, congenital hypothyroidism. While relatively easy to detect and treat with modern medicine, it was a condition that was often overlooked in Victorian times, and untreated could result in severely stunted mental and physical development. Therefore, to call someone a cretin is the equivalent of calling someone a spaz, retard, mongol, etc, an insult steeped in human tragedy and the exploitation of society's most vulnerable.
There is, however, a little more to the words cretin and cretinism, because the derivation is actually from the Latin Christianus, meaning 'Christian'. Why would people with congenital hypothyroidism be called Christians? As appallingly as the disadvantaged were often treated in Victorian times, the application of this Christian moniker was possibly meant as a reminder that, despite an illness that made them look and act strangely, people afflicted with cretinism were still people, and therefore worthy of respect, honour and care. Amen to that indeed, although any such compassion has been lost in modern usage, and therefore cretin has now been crossed off my list of acceptable insults. Maybe, Mr You-Know-Who, maths teacher extraordinaire, you should cross it off your list too.
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