early 14c., "person so mentally deficient as to be incapable of ordinary reasoning;" also in Middle English "simple man, uneducated person, layman" (late 14c.), from Old French idiote "uneducated or ignorant person" (12c.), from Latin idiota "ordinary person, layman; outsider," in Late Latin "uneducated or ignorant person," from Greek idiotes "layman, person lacking professional skill" (opposed to writer, soldier, skilled workman), literally "private person" (as opposed to one taking part in public affairs), used patronizingly for "ignorant person," from idios "one's own" (see idiom).
In plural, the Greek word could mean "one's own countrymen." In old English law, one who has been without reasoning or understanding from birth, as distinguished from a lunatic, who became that way. Idiot box "television set" is from 1959; idiot light "dashboard warning signal" is attested from 1961. Idiot savant attested by 1870.
updated on October 13, 2021