The continued debate about words…

The continued debate about words…

For the benefit of new readers to Knoah’s ARC or formally “What is Normal” I wish to take this opportunity to express some thoughts I have regarding the “M” word and others.

While in NYC, I had several opportunities to participate in discussions that affect LPA and the dwarfism community. I did not set out to become an advocate, more likely, I became one because I was thrusted into a world I knew nothing about with the birth of my son, Knoah. During one of our Advocacy Meetings, we engaged in a discussion regarding a “hot topic” surrounding LPA and past historical events.

We also discussed the “M” word or Midget for those unfamiliar with the reason it is now referred to as a letter in parentheses.

When “Celebrity Apprentice” aired April 5, 2009, my husband and I saw the episode. We typically don’t watch this sort of reality TV, but when we tuned in and watched the first few minutes, we knew it was not going to be good. Repeatedly, contestants were asked to come up with a “viral video“. A video that would prompt wide spread viewing and conversation. Well, they accomplished their goal.

Using All’s Small and Mighty as their theme both groups came up with the idea to use Little People as actors. This was not an issue, it was the fact that both groups referred to the LP actors as “Midgets”. Over and over again, this word was used throughout the show, even though it was mentioned that using such a word would be considered offensive. Yet, they continued.

Today, A Cranston R.I. mom, potitioned a national pickle company to remove the word “midget” from it’s labels.

As a parent of a little person, I am offended on several levels. One, doesn’t a network have a responsibility to the general public to air material that is suitable for all viewing audiences? Did NBC cross the lines by airing the show? Is society still ignorant to the fact that while one thing may not affect you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect someone else?

Simply put, I am just offended that they would refer to a Little Person as a “Midget”.

To understand, lets look back into the history of the word to see how it has evolved. Throughout history, little people have been referred to as midgets, dwarfs, circus acts, munchkins, oompa loompas, mini-me, tiny people, and many more comments that some little people may find offending.

In the 19th century, midget was a medical term referring to an extremely short but normally- proportioned person and was used in contrast to dwarf, which denoted disproportionate shortness. Like many other older medical terms, as it became part of popular language, it was usually used in a pejorative sense. When applied to a person who is very short, midget is now often considered offensive. Dwarf is an ancient word dating back many centuries.

In the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the meaning of dwarf is straightforward and neutral: “A human being very much below the ordinary stature or size.” The dictionary traces uses of the word as far back as the year 700. By contrast, midget was coined only in 1865, and its definition goes to the heart of why it is so deeply unpopular: “An extremely small person; spec. such a person publicly exhibited as a curiosity.” In other words, it’s impossible to think about the word midget without placing it within the context of the freak show, of the circus, of Midget Villages, and of Munchkins traipsing about the Land of Oz. Then, too, the root of midget is midge and as the short-statured artist Jacki Clipsham puts it, “A midge is a small insect that can be killed with impunity.”

For some reason, midget has another meaning as well. It refers only to a dwarf whose limbs are in the same proportion to his body as an average-size person’s–generally, to people whose short stature is the result of a hormonal deficiency rather than a genetic bone anomaly, as is the case with achondroplasia and other skeletal dysplasias.

Because midget was coined at the height of P. T. Barnum’s career, and because his most famous performers, Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren, were proportionate dwarfs, it is often assumed that it was Barnum himself who came up with the word. There is, however, no evidence for that. The word midget did not appear anywhere in Barnum’s 1855 autobiography, The Life of P. T. Barnum. In fact, he referred to Stratton repeatedly as a “dwarf.” The OED is cryptic as to the 1865 origin of midget, attributing it to “W. Cornw. Words in Jrnl. R. Inst. Cornw.” Thanks a lot!

But the dictionary entry also notes that, in 1869, it was used specifically to refer to a small person in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Old Town Folks: “Now you know Parson Kendall’s a little midget of a man.” Stowe’s usage may, in fact, be the true origin of midget. As to Barnum, to the best of my knowledge he did not coin the term “midget” &, as you know, used the word “dwarf” when referring to the Thumbs, Nutt, &c. I have seen him use the word “midget” in a few of his letters written toward the end of his life–the 1880s–but he must have picked it up from someone else. He was a great reader, of course, & knew the Beechers.

The deep unpopularity of the M-word is a fairly recent phenomenon. Indeed, in the freak shows of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dwarf had a more negative connotation than midget, according to the historian Robert Bogdan, because dwarfs were farther down the pecking order, and were assigned more degrading roles: The terms midget and dwarf had important social meaning in the amusement world. Small people who were well proportioned–”perfect humans in miniature”–in particular coveted the term midget for themselves as a way of disaffiliating from the more physically deformed dwarf exhibits. For midgets, who were typically cast in the high aggrandized mode, to be called a “dwarf” was like being called a “child”: it was an insult. “Dwarfs” were associated with exotic freak or circus clown roles, and these roles “midgets” shunned.

As we have seen, the word had not fallen into disfavor even by 1957, when Billy Barty held the first get-together for dwarfs under the name “Midgets of America.” And when it turned out that many of the people who showed up in Reno were disproportionate, Barty’s solution was to change the name to Little People of America–not because midget was considered offensive, but because Barty wanted a name that both proportionate and disproportionate members, midgets and dwarfs, could accept. Soon, little people became the preferred term.

So, as far back as we can see the word “Midget” has been used medically and descriptively to describe a little person. So what’s the problem? The problem is, that as times change, so do words. In the 50’s and 60’s as the term Midget shifted over to Little people, it also became unacceptable to call blacks Niggers or Coloreds. According to Websters the term was commonly used to refer to a person a short stature who was physically proportionate. However, over time, people within the general public began using this word in a manner to degrade someone IE: “Mental Midget” meaning less than. You can come up with all sort of terms and phrases that that demean and belittle a person if you choose, so a word no longer becomes descriptive but a pejorative.

Medically, this word is still used to describe a person of short stature who is physically proportionate. Following the airing of “Celebrity Apprentice” an outcry was heard from people within the dwarfism community. Newspapers across the country started to pick on the press release and the public, voiced their opinions. Even Perez Hilton got into it and voiced his opinion of “Fight on!”

Then you look at comment by readers…. Having a child that the public would call a Midget I am curious as to why a person would refer to another person in so demeaning of a way. I haven’t done it. I wouldn’t look at a person with Cerebral Palsy and call them a Retard. I wouldn’t look at a Gay man and call him a Fag. I wouldn’t even look at someone of my own race and call them a Nigger, but I have been called it.

“Sticks and Stones may brake my bones, but names will never hurt me”….

No, your right, they are only words and we give them power if we let them.

Then we have a celebrity like Cheryl Burke who openly says “I gave you the whole Midget thing” when asked about her comments about Verne Troyer and a certain video that was released.

Why do people feel it’s “okay” to make fun of Little People? Why do people feel that they can call someone any old thing they want because it’s “funny”?

In a recent interview I participated in, Lynn Harris asked me why I compare the “N” word to the “M” word and I told her. Being a Bi-racial women, who father is black and mother is white, I am all too familiar with being called derogatory names. On one occasion, right before the 2008 LPA National Conference, my father came over for a visit and asked what we were doing. We were packing for the National in Detroit, Michigan. When I told him we were going to spend a week in Detroit for LPA he says “Oh, your going to spend the week with a bunch of Midgets”… mouth hit the floor! I was stunned. I, internalized what I had just heard and was seeing. My father, a 6 foot 4 black man, the stereotypical man who was not invited over for dinner when my parent’s met. I asked him why he would say that. He, embarrassed, looked at me as asked, “isn’t that what their called?” I replied calmly and said “No, they are Little People, more importantly, they have names just like your grandson.”

After talking, I soon realized that in the era he grew up in it was acceptable to call a Little Person a Midget, as was calling a black person a Nigger. So, I started equating the “N” word with the “M” word.

Just because it was acceptable doesn’t mean it still is. Calling a Little Person the “M” word is demeaning, belittling and objectifies the person. It casts the aura that Little People are not real people. They are to be made fun of, laughed and pointed at. Joked about. My son is NONE of those things. He is a person, who as he grows will come to understand his feelings and will become more aware of the world around him.

The next time you pass a Little Person on the street, don’t stop and stare, don’t stop and ask for a picture, because they are not novelties to be shared with friends, they are men, women and children, who have jobs, have families, make a living just like you do. A Little Person maybe lacking in height, but most were given something the rest of us were not. Understanding of differences and acceptance of all people, short, tall, black or white. This is my son Knoah and that is what I would like you to call him.