How do we get “idiot” from “idios” that apparently means “one’s own, pertaining to oneself” and all sorts of things related to one’s own? One etymological dictionary tells me that our “idiot” comes from ἰδιώτης (idiotes) which means something like “private person” as opposed to “public citizen” – still how does the qualification of lacking knowledge/understanding come about? Latin’s idiota has two meanings according to my thick dictionary: 1) an ordinary person, a layman as distinct from an expert, amateur; 2) a person who holds no public office, a private individual. I get the particularity/peculiarity angle, one’s own as distincts, special, idiosyncratic and so on but how does peculiar become stupid and uninformed? I’m sure there’s a nice explanation for all of this, I am wondering though that there’s a certain disavowal of public life in this private personhood? But then again it doesn’t seem that Greeks or Latins used idiot in any derogatory sense, where does it come from then?
So there is this nice post on it but it does not explain the transformation, only states that it took place:
“Idiot” is another word that has changed its meaning over the centuries, although not as dramatically as “nice” once it was imported into English. The Greek “idiotes” meant simply “private individual” (from “idios,” meaning “personal”), as opposed to a “public man,” a politician or other well-known individual. (”Idios” also gave us “idiom,” one’s own way of speaking, and “idiosyncrasy,” one’s personal quirks and habits.)
By the time English imported “idiot” from French in the 13th century, however, “idiot” had already fallen on hard times, linguistically speaking. From “private individual,” it had evolved to mean “layman” or “uneducated common man,” and by the time it appeared in English “idiot” had come to primarily mean “ignorant person,” or, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) helpfully puts it, “a simple man; a clown.” Almost all usage of “idiot” in the subsequent centuries has reflected this general sense of “fool.”
There’s a large gap, it seems to me, between “private individual” and “layman/non-specialist” – first is clearly political, second is simply a matter of expertise.
An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter William Skeat makes a rather strange suggestion: “a private person hence one who is inexperience or uneducated” – this is a pretty significant “hence” there, isn’t it?
In any case, if you have an answer, let me know, I’m just curios (and clearly uninformed).