Friday, 14 January 2022

Unwelcome words

I keep up as best I can with all those linguistic changes to avoid offending one group or another in society, but sometimes I'm taken by surprise to learn that a particular word I'd never even thought about is highly offensive and needs to be replaced.

There's currently a big furore over the word "midget". Dr Erin Pritchard, a lecturer in disability studies, who herself has achondroplasia, a growth-stunting condition, says the word is offensive to short people and has a very derogatory origin in Victorian freak shows.

The outcry started after Marks and Spencer announced they were rebranding their sweet Midget Gems as Mini Gems to avoid offence. Several other companies have said they're considering doing the same.

Predictably enough, dozens of trolls have pitched in, saying it's wokery gone mad, or politically correct nonsense, or language policing, or just someone looking for something contentious to complain about.

Well, no, it's not just wokery gone mad. If a lot of people are so offended by a specific word that they avoid using it, then we should take note and avoid using it ourselves. How hard is it to make a simple change that would make other people more comfortable?

Dr Pritchard explains that the word's origin automatically dehumanises people like herself. "It was a word popularised during the Victorian freak show, where many disabled people, including people with dwarfism, were oppressed and exploited. When people scream the name at you in the street, it is only right that it is removed."

Yes, there are plenty of examples of "wokery gone mad" but this isn't one of them. This is a sensible request to phase out a disparaging word with a shameful history. Is that so hard to understand?

Pic: Doctor Erin Pritchard

34 comments:

  1. I would put it in the same category as other offensive words. Especially when those words are used as a slur. That's all we need to know.
    XO
    WWW

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    1. www: The real problem is words that are used innocently enough until someone decides to use them as a term of abuse.

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  2. So what do you suggest? I don't use the word "midget" as I associate it with mosquitos. I don't even say "dwarf" though, technically, that is what a dwarf is. Ask Snow White. One of my son's friends is getting married next month to one of those. His bride-to-be is, well, I'll ask her next time I see her what she is, how she'd describe herself. Vertically challenged? Most likely she'll just shrug her shoulder and smile.

    As to "freakshow", let's not be precious: Those who stand out, be they dwarfs, be they overly tall, be they unbelievably beautiful will be gawped at, shamelessly so. Which, to me, is far worse than any descriptive word someone may use.

    U

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    1. Ursula: It's all very simple - either you use an offensive word or you don't.

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  3. This was quite a timely post, Nick, because just this eek I watched a story on the BBC online in which a gentleman who was part of the British Olympic team railed about people using offensive terms to describe his short stature. It does seem that there are more words that offend one person or group than ever before. If someone feels slighted, then he or she should speak out.

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    1. Beatrice: I just did some googling. I guess you're referring to Amy Tinkler, who was described as a "fat dwarf" by a gymnastics coach. That's probably one of the politer things she's been called. Agreed, people should speak out if they feel insulted and not just "suck it up".

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  4. I have a friend whose tailor told him his size is known as "dwarf portly". He is not offended by that; in fact he told all his readers about the term. If he had been offended, I'm sure he would have told us that, too. Then I would not have shared that story.

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    1. Linda: Erin Pritchard thinks the word "dwarf" is fine, as it doesn't have the same negative associations as midget.

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  5. My oldest son was born a dwarf in 1977 - A total shock for us. He was first diagnosed with achondroplasia but after a few months, as his body changed they didn't know what syndrome he had. Back then there were over 70 different types.

    As we all were "growing" into this - as a family we joined Little People of America. Wonderful organization for families. Back then the only derogatory term was "midget." My son, who died at age 25 unexpectedly, always referred to himself as a dwark and in college he started referring to himself as "short-statured".

    We, as a family tried not to get overly upset about terms - he was popular in school and graduated college. He was just who he was - just happened to be really really short. When he died he was 31 inches tall.

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    1. Debby: I'm sorry he died at 25. But it looks like he was always very positive about his shortness and didn't let it interfere with anything he wanted to do.

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  6. I don't have any trouble updating my vocabulary in cases like this.

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    1. Jean: Exactly. What is there to get over-heated about?

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  7. The thing about words like midget, is that they are not used "innocently", they are used thoughtlessly.

    I once had this kind of argument re cultural appropriation. The person I was in conversation with was defending her cultural appropriation on the basis that she had friends of the relevant culture who weren't bothered about what she was doing. There was complete refusal to consider that maybe they actually were bothered but didn't say so or that she should stop doing it for the people who did clearly express their offence. (I can't remember the issue at hand, I think it may have been about blessingways/ mother blessings)

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    1. Kylie: Cultural appropriation is a tricky one. When does borrowing from other cultures to enrich your own culture morph into ripping off other people's heritage? There's a lot of controversy about novels and to what extent a writer should write about things outside her personal experience.

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    2. To use a blessingway as an example: the blessingway is a Navajo tradition of blessing a new or expectant mother. The Navajo people are ok with the general idea being used in other cultures but have requested that the word blessingway not be used. Mother blessing is an adequate substitute. In this case, it's n ot tricky in any way, the Navajo have asked and all we need to do is respect the request.
      Writing a novel is different, most novelists would not be able to experience everything they write and people who have the experiences aren't neccessarily writers

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    3. Kylie: The blessingway is interesting, especially the request for "outsiders" not to use that word. And yes, novelists by necessity have to invent things outside their personal experience.

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  8. Off to the dustbin of time, and rightly so.

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    1. Joanne: Off to the dustbin of time indeed.

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  9. what a great way of saying it Joanne Noragon!
    "off to the dustbin of time!"
    I have no problem deleting that word... especially if it would hurt or belittle someone else. why wouldn't any of us freely delete it from our vocabularies!
    great post Nick.

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    1. Tammy: Instead of all this over-heated nonsense about "wokery gone mad", people should just calm down and listen carefully to what Erin Pritchard is saying.

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  10. Language changes, the phrase that people use today that irks me is "my bad". But it isn't going to stop anyone from using it. Personally, anything that will make the average person happier is fine with me.

    Where I live, I am a minority. I was talking to a co-worker of mine who was black and really very sensitive. What I said could be construed as very racist. That was not my meaning at all. She waves her hand. No biggie, she knew what I meant. I think intent always trumps a verbal blunder.

    But mini candies versus midget candies. I imagine the minis taste just as good.

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    1. Ann: Yes, it's easy to unintentionally offend someone by the way you express something. But if you're happy to realise your mistake and apologise, then no harm done.

      Jenny and I use "my bad" in a humorous way. Although it seems very recently-coined, I see it goes back to 1970 at least!

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  11. It's all in the application of a word. Rule of thumb should be: Don't insult people with name calling - try to be more inventive!
    I'm guessing the word 'midget' existed before Victorian times? If so it was appropriated by the freak shows? Maybe it should be reappropriated to simply mean small - but that's probably impossible to do!
    I don't like being called a midget - it's usually said to undermine me, nor do I like being patted on the head - which is worse.
    Sx

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    1. Ms Scarlet: Wikipedia says the first use of the term "midget" was in 1816. But whatever its history, it's clearly offensive. So you also get called a midget? You must be shorter than I realised.

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    2. 4ft 11" and shrinking!! My Grandmother was 4ft 8" when she died.
      Sx

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    3. Ms Scarlet: Goodness, that is short!

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  12. There are plenty of words that we aren't supposed to say anymore.

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    1. Mary: There are. It's hard to keep up with them all.

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  13. It is a word long overdue for the removing.

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    1. Susan: It is. Strange that I only just discovered it was offensive.

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  14. We have had several reality shows featuring ‘Little People,’ as they presumably want to be called now. I truly would never have thought a food item using the word ‘midget’ would be considered offensive, but that’s only because it doesn’t affect me, I suppose.

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    1. Bijoux: Yes, it's hard to know what words might be offensive if you don't belong to the group in question.

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  15. You're so right that it's not that hard to choose a different word if you find out that one you've been using is that hurtful to people. My dad always called me and my sister a certain term when we were kids, and sometimes even as adults. We always thought it was funny. Then we found out a lot of people consider it to be very racist. Obviously, my dad wasn't using a racial slur to address his own biological children, but now we NEVER use the term in front of other people since so many people view it that way. It certainly didn't harm any of us to stop using the term.

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    1. Danielle: Indeed, it's simple enough to drop a term that's offensive and use a different one. Why do some people make such a fuss about it?

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