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March 21, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

BETTER LATE THAN NEVER....Last year I asked where the term "mouth breather" as a synonym for "idiot" originated. Today, reader KH provided the answer. Here's an excerpt from a New York Times article from March 21, 1897:

Many children are always mouth breathers, and cannot breathe through the nose on account of conditions of the throat requiring medical attention; in such children test the hearing, which is apt to become very dull if the case is neglected.

Apparently the original association, which was likely more true in 1897 than today, was "mouth breather" => deafness/difficulty hearing => mentally slow. And that's your etymology lesson for the day.

Kevin Drum 1:53 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (19)

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Comments

Cool; I always wondered where that phrase came from.

Now I'm setting myself up for a joke, aren't I...

Posted by: Frank J. on March 21, 2006 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

I think you are over analyzing this one. . .I think the work "dull" refers to ability to hear, not the mental capacity of the sufferer. In other words, if left untreated, the hearing becomes dull (or lessened).

Posted by: ya never know on March 21, 2006 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, the word "dull" in the NYT article refers to dullness of hearing. However, the association is that dullness of hearing leads to mental slowness. That's where the popular use of the term came from.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on March 21, 2006 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

More here.

Posted by: conspiracy nut on March 21, 2006 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

I do believe it's a slur with the same meaning in Chinese, and of much older provenance.

Posted by: Douglass Truth on March 21, 2006 at 2:17 PM | PERMALINK

I find Conspiracy Nut's link more convincing. People who have to breathe through the mouth due to respiratory issues just *look* stupid at times.

Posted by: Peter on March 21, 2006 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

There are also medical syndromes (combinations of symptoms and deficits) involving mental retardation that also involve mouth breathing due to facial or cranial deformities. When people who were retarded were cared for at home and were thus more visible in their local communities, it would be possible for people to observe and associate the two symptoms through interaction with those having such syndromes.

People's mouths hang open when they are surprised, but also when they are in rapt concentration on something, working hard mentally (Johnmarshall Reeve studies this expression). Perhaps those with mental deficiency inappropriately show this expression in social interactions and others pick up on it -- this is just a guess.

Posted by: Nancy on March 21, 2006 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Oxygen depravition numbs one's senses.

Posted by: apeman on March 21, 2006 at 2:29 PM | PERMALINK

I am the origin for the term "mouth breather".

Up to the age of 10, I had no hearing in my left ear, had eustacian tube difficulties, and spent the majority of my day mouth-breathing like a slack-jawed yokel. While my friends--even to this day--believed me to be a blithering idiot, my teachers always knew better because they saw my test scores. They never let me slack off, dammit.
--
HRlaughed

Posted by: HRlaughed on March 21, 2006 at 2:34 PM | PERMALINK

I find Conspiracy Nut's link more convincing.
The best part is, they also define "metric buttload" as a large, indeterminant quantity.

Posted by: conspiracy nut on March 21, 2006 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

My mother (who was a nurse back in the dark ages) says the NYT reference has to do with untreated adenoid hypertrophy. The clinical term for the appearance of these patients is adenoid facies. The common term is "mouth breather".

Adenoid hypertrophy can block off the nasal passage and eustacian tubes. It can affect hearing and may be correlated with ear infections.

This still doesn't explain any correlation with intelligence. More likely that's a reference to similar facial characteristics in Down's syndrome where nasal passages are also constricted.

Posted by: B on March 21, 2006 at 3:48 PM | PERMALINK

Y'all are thinking too hard about this.. no etymology required (your associations are probably false anyhow).

Y'see, this is how it goes: Rednecks often are seen with their mouths agape, especially when a Yankee is discussing anything of substance with them. That really looks stupid. Thus slack-jaw, mouth-breather = idiot, jackass, Redneck.

Posted by: bubba on March 21, 2006 at 3:50 PM | PERMALINK

So then by definition, a fire breather would be someone who can breathe properly through the nasal passages,but has poor mouuth hygiene? As someone who suffered with deviation of the septum,I can state that there is no correlation between nasal intake capacity and intelligence.

Posted by: jblym on March 21, 2006 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, the word "dull" in the NYT article refers to dullness of hearing. However, the association is that dullness of hearing leads to mental slowness. That's where the popular use of the term came from.
Posted by: Kevin Drum

Nope. The "dull" refers to mental capacity, which can be diminished or hampered by poor hearing. Our son was a mouth breather until he was three, and then had his tonsils and adenoids removed. A friend had this same problem resulting in him repeating first grade. He wasn't dumb, he just coudn't hear.

I can result in "slack jaw" as well causing a severe under bite and voting conservatively and against your own economic interests. Seems to be quite prominent in the "heartland."

Sorry. Such an obvious leap.

Posted by: Jeff II on March 21, 2006 at 4:15 PM | PERMALINK

HIATOR is an old Latin word, used by the Romans, that means "mouth-breather" or "open-mouth) and is used to refer to someone who lusts after something, or is stupid.

Posted by: Max Edison on March 21, 2006 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

Well damn, I always had trouble with nasel congestion, and was thus something of a mouth breather, particularly as a kid. And I've been a bit deaf since I was a kid too! I guess that with my slowness I've hit the trifecta!

Seriously, being a bit deaf does make people think you're stupid since you inevitably have to guess what people say to you sometimes, and invent a seemingly appropriate reply from their tone of voice, which occasionally isn't all that appropriate. I wonder if I'm the archetypal mouth breather...

- well, I'm just about to post this and actually read some other comments, and I see I'm not alone...

Posted by: Mike on March 21, 2006 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK

The Oxford English Dictionary gives the medical definition (breathes through one's mouth. Then it adds the following:

Noun, American slang. "A stupid person."

1985 Maclean's (Nexis) 17 June 56 One wonders..if some nervous vice-Presidents at the CBC are not looking over their shoulders at some of the mouth-breathers and wall-climbers in the new Conservative caucus. 1998 Esquire July 117/1 Three dateless chuckleheads in mullet cutsshort on top, shoulder length behind; mouth breathers, unibrows, stooges.

Posted by: Lew Wolkoff on March 22, 2006 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

I thought the phrase was "mouth breeder", and the allusion was to the mental capacity of fish. I guess that makes me a mouth breather.

Posted by: Bob Miller on March 22, 2006 at 6:36 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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