Yesterday (Pentecost) in church, our minister read the well-known Biblical passage of the disciples receiving the Holy Spirit. They were then able to speak their native languages to the Jews in Jerusalem who’d traveled far and wide. The Book of Acts lists the places they’d come from. I pondered the multicultural nature of first-century Judea. We still struggle with that today.
Then, within that list, I heard a clunker. Cretans.
Unfairly, I admit, it took me right out of the moment. I know. They were people from Crete. But today, their name has a different meaning. It was like listening to a list of Europeans. “There were British and Norwegians, Icelanders and French, Idiots and Swiss.”
It made me wonder. What was the deal with the Cretans that their name became synonymous with dunderheads? The answer is more complex than I’d expected. There are two explanations of the term’s etymology. One in a positive sense and the other negative. First, the older of the two.
In the 6th century B.C.E., a poet from Crete named Epimenides formulated the first known mathematical paradox, often called the Cretan Paradox. As with everything else from ancient days, it’s surrounded by controversy, but it basically said, “All Cretans are liars.” Being Cretan himself, is Epimenides’s statement true? If so, Epimenides is a truth-teller, which makes the statement false.
We can go ’round and ’round with this, but likely this was an exercise in logic that got out of hand. Fast forward six hundred years to the Apostle Paul, who wrote “One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ This saying is true.” (Titus 1:12-13)
Apparently, Paul, and likely others in the Mediterranean world, missed the point. Epimenides’s logic experiment became a scathing condemnation of all people from Crete. Well, that sucks for them.
A more positive explanation of our use of ‘cretin’ today—which is spelled with the ‘i’ and not the ‘a’, states that the term has nothing to do with the island of Crete. It comes from a medical condition resulting from a lack of iodine known as cretinism. This used to be common in southern Europe, resulting in stunted growth, impaired mental abilities, and other malformations.
According to The Word Detective, “The word ‘cretin’ itself is derived from the Swiss French Alpine dialect word ‘crestin,’ from the Latin word ‘Christianum,’ which means ‘Christian.’” (http://www.word-detective.com/)
That raises the question of why the term for this disease comes from “Christian.” Also disputed among etymologists, one explanation says it was an appeal to people to see the sufferers as human beings, not grotesque creatures to be shunned or mistreated. An outlook we need more of today, as well.
And yet, if this explanation is correct, good intentions devolved over time to a word meaning “one who is less than others, mentally or in terms of character.” And we still think of people from Crete.
Sorry, Cretans. Sometimes you just can’t win.