A cretin, in the original sense, is a Christian.

Webster 1913 defines cretinism as

A condition of endemic or inherited idiocy, accompanied by physical degeneracy and deformity (usually with goiter), frequent in certain mountain valleys, esp. of the Alps.
.

Nowadays it's more generally used as a derisive term for a person with inferior intelligence, and not necessarily this specific form of physical and mental retardation. Well enough, you say, but where did it come from?

The Alpine peasants with whom the term originated didn't get enough iodine in their diets. Strange and unhealthy things often happen to children whose mothers suffer from iodine deficiency. That's why the salt you buy at the store is iodized - so the poor who can't afford a proper diet have a lower risk of giving birth to retarded kids. Unfortunately, mountain rustics in medieval times didn't have access to this now-trivial triumph of medicine and technology, and so their offspring contained a disproportionately large number of idiot dwarves.

Christian doctrine holds that the weak and inferior are to be pitied. The priests in these mountain villages reminded their parishioners of this, explaining that their defective progeny were still human and had souls, which distinguished them from mere animals. To the isolated and illiterate villagers, the words "human" and "Christian" were synonomous, and so the village idiots became known as Christians, or in the local dialect, cretins.

Though the etymology of cretin is largely forgotten today, there is a Catholic high school in St. Paul, Minnesota known as Cretin-Derham Hall. Having become coeducational after a merger of boys' and girls' schools, it was originally the all-male Cretin High School, founded by the Christian Brothers in 1871.

False etymology ahead

Cretin as Christian is not the etymology of Cretin that I was taught. I have no data in support of this, but I was told it as fact.

Lesbian originally meant someone from the Isle of Lesbos, where Sappho the famous woman-loving woman poet lived, and thus "inhabitant of Lesbos" became synonymous with "dyke", even if most people on that island weren't what we call Lesbians. I have met a person from Lesbos, and he certainly wasn't a dyke.

I was taught that the word Cretin derived similarly from the inhabitants of Crete, where apparently indoor plumbing was an early innovation in Roman times, but unfortunately the material chosen to make the pipes was lead, resulting in an increase in the prevalence of congenital idiocy to such an extent that "inhabitant of Crete" became synonymous with "Idiot", and if some speculation is to be believed, contributed to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The real story about the Romans and Lead is over at Lead Poisoning and the Fall of the Roman Empire.

Ah well, it seems to have been one of those lies your parents tell you.


Anark point out that Cretan not the same as Cretin. True, but they are a lot closer in spelling and pronounciation than Cretin and Christian. And Lesbian is not the same as Lesbosian. Any more.
mblaise pointed out: I think Anark's writeup got much of its data from http://www.takeourword.com/Issue027.html -- which seems pretty authoritative to me.
creeping featuritis = C = cretinous

cretin /kret'in/ or /kree'tn/ n.

Congenital loser; an obnoxious person; someone who can't do anything right. It has been observed that many American hackers tend to favor the British pronunciation /kret'in/ over standard American /kree'tn/; it is thought this may be due to the insidious phonetic influence of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

Cre"tin (kr?"t?n), n. [F. cr'etin; of uncertain origin.]

One afflicted with cretinism.

 

© Webster 1913.

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