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The term feeble-minded was used from the late nineteenth century in Great Britain, Europe and the United States to refer to a specific type of "mental deficiency". At the time, mental deficiency was an umbrella term, which encompassed all degrees of educational and social deficiency. Within the concept of mental deficiency, researchers established a hierarchy, ranging from idiocy, at the most severe end of the scale; to imbecility, at the median point; and to feeble-mindedness at the highest end of functioning. The latter was conceived of as a form of high-grade mental deficiency.

The development of the ranking system of mental deficiency has been attributed to Sir Charles Trevelyan in 1876, and was associated with the rise of eugenics. The term and hierarchy had been used in that sense at least ten years previously. "Wild card" terms outside the established hierarchy of mental deficiency, such as idiot savant, may have been used as connotations for those who would today be considered to be included in the autistic spectrum.


The earliest recorded use of the term in the English language dates from 1534, when it appears in one of the first English translations of the New Testament. A biblical injunction to "Comforte the feble mynded" is included in Thessalonians 1:14. A London Times editorial of November 1834 describes the long-serving former Prime Minister Lord Liverpool as a "feeble-minded pedant of office".

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