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shameless pleading






Eat your iodine.

Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of the word “cretinism”? I have been hunting for this answer with the idea that maybe it is tied to the island of Crete and some view by the Greeks that they were some sort of giants or something, but have come up dry. Hopefully you wise people will find the answer. –Joseph Lynch.

That’s a good question. Incidentally, in your email you spelled the word “cretenism” (rather than “cretinism,” the standard form), which may be why you had difficulty finding information. If one plugs “cretenism” into Google, it does cough up about 500 web pages spelling it that way, mostly blogs and the like, but many of them serious medical sites, which is odd. In fact, the US government National Institutes of Health occasionally uses that spelling.

In any case, your hunch connecting “cretinism” to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, is entirely reasonable, given the similarity in pronunciation of “cretin” (“KREET-in”) to “Cretan,” a native of the island (“KREET-an”). But there is no connection between the two words.

Today “cretin” is usually used as a derogatory slang term for someone perceived as being stupid, foolish or incompetent, equivalent to “moron,” “idiot” or “nitwit” (“I had to get clearance from some cretin in Human Resources to take the day off.”). The origins of “cretin,” however, lie in a true human tragedy.

The medical condition known as “cretinism” is caused by a severe deficiency of thyroid hormones (a condition known as “hypothyroidism”). In infants, this condition results in greatly stunted growth, physical deformities and cognitive impairment that ranges from slight to severe. The primary cause of cretinism is lack of iodine in the diet, a deficiency that can also cause “goiter,” a grossly enlarged thyroid gland visible as a large swelling in the neck. Hypothyroidism today is usually successfully treated with iodine supplements.

Lack of iodine in the diet (due mostly to poor soil conditions) was, at one time, common in southern Europe, especially in the rural villages of the valleys at the foot of the Alps. The word “cretin” itself is derived from the Swiss French Alpine dialect word “crestin,” from the Latin word “Christianum,” which means “Christian.”

Just why the word “Christian” was applied to such sufferers is a matter of dispute among etymologists, but the most likely explanation is that “Christian” was used in the sense of “human creature, worthy of respect” in order to make clear that those afflicted with “cretinism,” while they might look and act a bit odd, were simply people like the rest of us. “Christian” was also used in English in this non-religious sense from the 16th through the 19th century, essentially as a synonym of “fellow” or “regular guy.”

8 comments to Cretin

  • Sam Hays

    I wouldn’t be so quick to dispel that there is some connection to the origins of the word Cretin with the Cretans. Check our this verse from the New Testament written by the great apostle Paul that suggests that the Cretans were indeed acting like Cretins.

    Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth” (Titus 1:12-15).

    • Davon Alder

      Yeah. I wouldn’t discount the fact that they were on the receiving end of one of the harsher burns in the NT. Basically any European has had 2000ish years of the central work of their religious canon use the same term, which is the same in every language because it’s a place name, calling Cretans, well, Cretins.

      A little unfairly since Paul seems to be referring to what came to be known as Epimenides’ Paradox (despite predating Epimenides).

  • Mary

    Paragraph 5, last sentence… I disagree. Hypothyroidism today is not treated with iodine supplements, it is treated with thyroid hormone replacement.

  • Patrick Miller

    Better than a Boeotian

  • Bob Frankenberger

    An article in today’s March 2020 Eating Well magazine (which brought me here) I’m citing an article called “The Real Mediterranean Diet”. In 1948 a social scientist, Leland Allbaugh, launched a seven month survey of Greece. Particularly the island of Crete. He said in his letter to his funders at the Rockefeller foundation that “The Cretans have a potential need for almost everything”. Seems the Cretans had the lowest level of income in Greece. Malaria and “diseases of filth,” like dysentery, were widespread. His team visited farmers, factory workers, et al, monitoring death rates. His research found this wrong and the local diet “suprising good”. With low Western diseases the vigorous health was going to be called The Mediterranean diet. Hmm, Cretin. May have another additional social blemish to support the use.

  • Frank

    I remember my father using the Italian expression
    “povero cristiano” to mean “poor guy”.

  • Frank

    I find it interesting that the British pronunciation is with a short -e-, as distinct from an inhabitant of Crete. In the U.S., the preferred pronunciation seems to be with a long -e-.

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