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Words: imbecile, n., v. or adj.

THE HISTORY of the word imbecile, the OED tells us, "can scarcely be dis-entangled from that of `embezzle'." Both came from a Latin word imbecillus meaning weak in body or mind and both were originally used as verbs meaning to weaken or debilitate. The use of imbecile specifically for mental enfeeblement and embezzle for financial crime came only recently.

When Shelley, in Queen Mab (1813), referred to "his stunted stature and imbecile frame", and when Macaulay (1855) wrote that the British administration had been "constantly becoming more and more imbecile" neither used the word in the modern sense.

It was Dr Johnson's fault, however, that we spell it with one `l': he had the erroneous impression that the Latin from which it derived was imbecilis.