Imbecile was a medical category of people with moderate to severe mental retardation, as well as a type of criminal. The term arises from the Latin word imbecillus, meaning weak, or weak-minded. It included people with an IQ of 26–50, between "moron" (IQ of 51–70) and "idiot" (IQ of 0–25).
The meaning was further refined into mental and moral imbecility. The concepts of "moral insanity", "moral idiocy"," and "moral imbecility", led to the emerging field of eugenic criminology, which held that crime can be reduced by preventing "feeble-minded" people from reproducing.
"Imbecile" as a concrete classification was popularized by psychologist Henry H. Goddard and was used in 1927 by United States Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in his ruling in the forced-sterilization case Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927).
The concept is closely associated with psychology, psychiatry, criminology, and eugenics. However, the term imbecile quickly passed into vernacular usage as a derogatory term, and fell out of professional use in the 20th century in favor of mental retardation.
In recent decades, the phrases "mental retardation", "mentally retarded", and "retarded" have similarly come to be viewed as derogatory terms and their usage now is considered to be politically incorrect much like the words moron, imbecile, and idiot, formerly used as scientific terms in the early 20th century, also came to be viewed as derogatory. On October 5, 2010, President Barack Obama signed Senate Bill 2781, known as "Rosa's Law", which changed references in many Federal statutes that referred to "mental retardation" to refer instead to "intellectual disability".
See also 
- Fernald, Walter E. (1912). The imbecile with criminal instincts. Fourth edition. Boston: Ellis. OCLC 543795982.
- Duncan, P. Martin; Millard, William (1866). A manual for the classification, training, and education of the feeble-minded, imbecile, and idiotic. Longmans, Green, and Co.
- Sternberg, Robert J. (2000). Handbook of Intelligence. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-59648-0.
- Kerlin, Isaac N. (1889). "Moral imbecility". Proceedings of the Association of Medical Officers of American Institutions for Idiotic and Feeble-minded Persons, 15–18.
- Fernald, Walter E. (1 April 1909). "The imbecile with criminal instincts". American Journal of Psychiatry. 65(4):731–749.
- Rafter, Nicole Hahn (1998). Creating Born Criminals. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-06741-9.
- Tredgold, A. F. (1921). "Moral Imbecility". Proc R Soc Med, 1921; 14(Sect Psych): 13–22.
- Goddard, Henry Herbert (1915). The Criminal Imbecile; an Analysis of Three Remarkable Murder Cases. New York: The Macmillan Company.
- Lombardo, Paul A. (2008). Three Generations, No Imbeciles: Eugenics, the Supreme Court, and Buck V. Bell. JHU Press, ISBN 978-0-8018-9010-9
- Kaplan, Robert M.; Saccuzzo, Dennis P. (2008). Psychological Testing: Principles, Applications, and Issues. Cengage Learning, ISBN 978-0-495-09555-2
- Sweet, Lynn (October 5, 2010). "Obama signs 'Rosa's Law;' 'mental retardation' out, 'intellectual disability' in". Chicago Sun-Times.