original meaning of ‘cretin’: ‘Christian’, ‘human being’


Briançonnais – Types d’anciens habitants des vallées

Briançonnais – Types d’anciens habitants des vallées
photograph: Culture, Histoire et Patrimoine de Passy



The English noun cretin is first recorded in The Annual Register, or A View of the History, Politics, and Literature, for the Year 1779 (London, 1780), which published An Account of the Vallais*, and of the Goitres and Idiots of that Country, by William Coxe (1748-1828), English historian and Church of England clergyman; he wrote in a footnote:

The species of idiots I have mentioned above, and who are deemed by many authors as peculiar to the Vallais, are called Cretins.

(* Valais: a canton in southern Switzerland)

This noun was borrowed from French crétin, feminine crétine, which was first used by Timoléon Guy François de Maugiron (1722-67) in a letter entitled Voyage en Suisse (Journey in Switzerland), read on 22nd July 1750 at a meeting of la Société royale de Lyon (the Royal Society of Lyon). This letter was the direct source of the article Crétins in the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (volume 4, Paris, 1754), edited by Denis Diderot (1713-84) and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-83).

As G. W. Bruyn and Charles M. Poser wrote in The History of Tropical Neurology: Nutritional Disorders (Science History Publications/USA – 2003):

Maugiron mentions that a great many people in the Valais, particularly near the capital Sion, suffer from a particular congenital malady that is characterized by deafness, mutism, imbecility, big pendulous goitres, and “insensitivity to being beaten.” “The Valaisians call them crétins and consider them to be protecting angels, sent by heaven.” They are never criminal but of pleasant, simple disposition: “One should nearly wish to be a cretin.”

Maugiron was unable to find any cause for this “species of man”, who we now know are physically deformed and have learning difficulties because of congenital thyroid deficiency.

(There is in French a distinction between the disease, named crétinisme, and mere stupidity, named crétinerie. The expression crétin des Alpes now simply denotes a particularly stupid person.)

The French word crétin is an adaptation of Swiss patois crestincreitin, from Latin Christianum, meaning Christian. In this case, it means human being as distinguished from the brutes, the sense being that these beings are really human, though so deformed physically and mentally. According to Bruyn and Poser, the word also reflects

the divine purpose for which the families cared for these harmless, good-natured people, whose crutches and rags were often venerated after their death.

Similarly, Bearnese used crestiau to designate a cagot, a member of an outcast population in Béarn and Gascony, in south-western France, perhaps originally afflicted with leprosy or some other disease.

Likewise, French benêt, meaning simple-minded, was originally a Norman variant of benoît, an obsolete adjective meaning complacent, but originally blessed, from Latin benedictum, past participle of the verb benedicereto bless, composed of benewell, and dicereto say (cf. English benediction).

The development which led to the sense simple-minded of benêt is probably based on the Beatitudes, the blessings listed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew (5:3):

(New International Version – 2011)
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

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