early 15c., "uneducated, unable to read and write" (originally meaning Latin), from Latin illiteratus "unlearned, unlettered, ignorant; without culture, inelegant," from assimilated form of in- "not, opposite of" (see in- (1)) + literatus "educated," literally "furnished with letters" (see literate). Rendered in Old English as unstæfwis. As a noun meaning "illiterate person" from 1620s. Hence, illiterati (1788, Horace Walpole).
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