By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The M-word makes an ugly appearance

It’s hard to believe, after all these years, that the word “midget” would pop up in a front-page story in today’s New York Times. David Segal writes:

After the Depression, Congress formed what became known as the Pecora Commission, which grilled top financiers. But the point was mostly to embarrass them, and the upshot was to set the stage for stricter regulations. The most indelible image of the commission’s hearings was a photo of J. P. Morgan Jr. with a midget who had been plopped in his lap by an opportunistic publicist.

The American Heritage Dictionary makes it clear that the M-word is “offensive.” In my book, “Little People,” I trace the history of this unfortunate word, possibly coined in the 1860s by Harriet Beecher Stowe and inextricably tied up in the idea of putting someone on public display.

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  1. ben

    I imagine he used it out of ignorance rather than bad intention. I hope you have sent him an email. Just to clarify, is the most acceptable term “little person”?

  2. Dan Kennedy

    Ben: I’m sure he did it out of ignorance. The thing is, though, that I’ve complained in the past.If you read the chapter I posted, you’ll see that terminology can be fraught with peril. There are folks who despise “little people,” for instance.The only thing everyone agrees on is that the M-word is highly offensive.

  3. The Arranger

    You would expect a copy editor at the New York Times to catch it. But a lot of people I know have a vague idea “one” of those words is offensive, but can’t remember which one.My kids have this problem, chiefly because it’s not a topic that they encounter frequently. They remember me correcting them, but can’t remember what they’re supposed to say. Midget probably “sounds” more right to a child, because “dwarf” brings to mind Snow White, etc., and they think of it like calling someone an elf or a leprechaun, and “little people” sounds somehow dismissive.They constantly correct me for saying “American Indian” for Native American” They also tend to be jarred by the use of “black,” and I wonder sometimes if I’m slipping into the category in which I viewed my aunts in the 1970s, when, although they were FDR-JFK pro-civil-rights Democrats, just couldn’t get used to saying anything other than “colored.”Bob in Peabody

  4. Michael Pahre

    Dan, have you written a letter to the editor at the NYT? You should. Just an email to the writer only impacts that person (or two, if you include his editor).

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: I’ve e-mailed Clark Hoyt, the public editor. I’ve also posted my item to four separate dwarfism listservs and urged people there to write to Hoyt as well.Bob: You’re right — people are vaguely aware that they might be stepping into a landmine. So shouldn’t someone on the copy desk reach for a dictionary?

  6. twallack

    If Little People is offensive as well, what term do you recommend the NYT and other papers use?

  7. Dan Kennedy

    twallack: I’m just getting into the fine details here. “Little people” and “dwarf” are fine.

  8. Neil

    I had the same question as twallack but then it occurred to me that maybe the solution is not to run the exploitative photo in the first place. After all a media giant like NYT contributes to the “indelible” nature of images by printing them. Surely by now lots of people have never seen that image before, so it’s not indelible to them.But, the NYT didn’t actually display the image (at least the online version doesn’t). So maybe the answer is to delete the sentence altogether. It doesn’t add news value to mention the image in the first place, whether you actually show the image or not.

  9. Doug Shugarts

    I’m glad you wrote about this. I had assumed that the offensive term was ‘dwarf,’ not midget.

  10. Mike F

    It seems to me that most people are aware that it’s regarded as an offensive term, or at least objectionable, so it surprises me that no one at the Times picked it up.

  11. Michael Pahre

    Dan, not to harp on it, but I would like to reiterate: I think you should write a letter-to-the-editor.While getting a pile of good letters submitted from the dwarfism listservs would be good, a paper of record like the NYT will very often look for an “authoritative” source for a letter to publish.As both the author of a book on the subject of dwarfism and a professor of journalism you fit the bill as “authoritative” on this matter, no matter how modest you may be about it. You’re the one who should write the letter.

  12. Dan Kennedy

    Michael: Appreciate it, but I’ve done my part. The vice president of public relations for Little People of America knows about it, and he may write a letter.

  13. cavard

    >> It's hard to believe, after all these years, that the word "midget" would pop up in a front-page story in today's New York Times <<Good God… That. Is. Embarrassing. I can't believe NYT editors and proofreaders didn't say anything. This is the Times for crying out loud!

  14. ron-newman

    When I was young, I recall hearing that the difference between ‘midget’ and ‘dwarf’ had to do with whether the head size was proportionate or disproportionate to the rest of the body. I don’t even remember which was which. Obviously usage has shifted since then.

  15. Bill

    I would like to express my appreciation to Dan for catching this gaff by the NYT. I’m the Senior Vice President of LPA, and we will be writing a letter to them (and a second one to RNC Chairman Steele, who just doesn’t seem to get how ironically offensive it is when he throws the word around).Perhaps the NYT should also be made aware that the “midget” plopped on J.P. Morgan’s lap in that photo was so embarrassed in the aftermath of that publicity stunt she returned to her native Germany — and ended perishing in the Holocaust.

  16. lkcape

    It appears that “dwarf” and “midget” and “little people” have all stirred some passions.I have a great deal of disdain for anyone who uses pejorative terms in reference to others. But when the politically correct language police become involved it gives me pause.When does a phrase turn from acceptable to pejorative? And who gets to make that decision?I find the terms “liberal” and “conservative” offensive when they are used as weapons. Is this not, too, a province for the Language Police?Even the dwarf in the carnival whispered “here come the suckers” when the gates opened. Should the “suckers” be offended?

  17. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: I had completely forgotten that the woman in Morgan’s lap was Lya Graf. I should have remembered. Thanks for adding that piece of information. Good luck getting the Times to run a letter from LPA.Ron: There is a secondary meaning to “midget” in terms of its pertaining to people with proportionate forms of dwarfism. But that meaning has fallen into disuse (and disfavor). Barnum, in his autobiography, referred to Charles Stratton (“Tom Thumb”) as a dwarf, because the M-word had not yet been invented.Ikcape: Simple answer. The affected community gets to decide. And the rest of us have to respect that. That’s how “African-American” came into use almost overnight.

  18. ron-newman

    Thanks, Dan. By the way, check out this 1934 article from Time magazine. (Found it while googling on “midget” and “JP Morgan”),9171,754125,00.html”Midgets bitterly resent being miscalled dwarfs, who are usually misshapen or deformed. Usually born normal, and of normal parents, midgets invariably produce normal children.”

  19. Dan Kennedy

    Ron: Yes, that’s right. I get into that in my book. In the circus, proportionate dwarfs — that is, midgets — got better roles than the disproportionate dwarfs. Thus “midgets” had higher status than dwarfs, at least in that narrow world.

  20. lkcape

    “…The affected community gets to decide. And the rest of us have to respect that…. “Indeed that is true.But what role does the Language Police get to play and on whose authority? Society’s of course.But the very argument that you are using to justify the Language Police, here, applies to the disparagement of liberals, or neo-conservatives, or fundamentalists, or evangelicals, or whatever. If they are offended by the use in a pejorative manner, will the Language Police jump to their defense?I think not.

  21. endangered coffee

    lkcape,should we state the obvious? neoconservative, liberal, etc, are largely the result of choice.Dwarf, African-American, not so much.

  22. Kristin

    To Ron: The 1934 article you referenced had multiple misstatements about short statured individuals in general and the entire thing is highly offensive especially considering that it was in the Time Magazine. Although the dwarfism community has made great strides in educating the public on acceptable terms, in viewing the many comments stated on this blog, it is apparent that we still have a long way to go.

  23. lkcape

    I agree with your assessment that the ones I noted are largely a result of choiceThey can still be used pejoratively and perceived as such, and that was the hook that the original argument was hung on.You just bring us back to the question of the legitimacy of the authority of the Language Police.I think the word “traitor” applied to John McCain and implied against Gen Petraeus might just fall under the offensive category.If I were them I certainly would think so. Politics need not be defamatory. Labels need not be pejorative.

  24. ron-newman

    Well yeah, it was written in 1934 after all, when our understanding of human biology and genetics was fairly primitive. DNA hadn’t even been discovered yet.I posted it not to defend the term ‘midget’ but rather to point out how our language preferences have changed over time.

  25. mike_b1

    Dan, in any circles is “little people” considered pejorative. Speaking as a slightly above average height male, it sure sounds to me like it diminishes (sorry, that’s not an intentional pun) those whose DNA keep them at a below average height.

  26. Neil

    lkcape what are you talking about? Bringing up that at some point, some individual somewhere (unrelated to this post) called some other individual (unrelated to this post) a name you think he or she might find offensive, veers way off topic. In that case call the individual out at the time of the offense, directly. There is no “justification” of the “Language Police” going on here. Nobody has used that term except you. The guideline is, if a community is aggrieved by some term, and they say so, respect that and don’t use the term. Straightforward enough.

  27. Dan Kennedy

    Mike: I do know a few people who hate the term “little people.” But they seem to be in the minority.

  28. Robin Edgar

    It occurs to me that David Segal may well have used the “M-word” fully intentionally in order to underline his a point. You acknowledge that the word is “inextricably tied up in the idea of putting someone on public display” and Segal is talking about a midget who had been plopped in (J. P. Morgan’s) lap by an *opportunistic publicist*, quite evidently for a proverbial “photo opportunity”. It doesn’t get much closer to putting someone on public display than that does it? Maybe Segal is more sensitive to the issue than you think. In any case, discussing the matter with him might not hurt.

  29. Robin Edgar

    BTW Dan I have made it through the better part of fifty years of life without being even remotely aware that the “M-word” had any negative connotations, on the contrary I had been given the impression that is was proper usage for describing “little people” who were not dwarves. Hopefully the D-word is not considered offensive otherwise Walt Disney Corp. might be in a spot of trouble. This blog post of yours is my introduction to the notion that the “M word” is offensive. I guess I have some research to do.Regards,Robin Edgar

  30. Dan Kennedy

    Robin: As I explain in my book, my wife and I would not have known either. The problem with the Times is that this has been pointed out to them before, and they don’t seem to care.

  31. Robin Edgar

    Forgive me for opportunistically taking this opportunity to remind you Dan but I seem to recall repeatedly pointing out to certain Bostonians you well know how words like “cult” aka the C-Word, and “psychotic” aka the P-Word, are not only extremely offensive but damagingly slanderous and libelous when wrongly used to label aka “name-call” groups or people. *They* don’t seem to care either. . . I always thought that midget was a perfectly respectable word until today and even had a bit of a soft spot for midgets myself, especially this kind of offensive midget. Inspired by this blog post of yours the U*U Jihad Navy is going to acquire some of *that* kind of midget and put then to good use under the U*U Sea of Hypocrisy. 🙂

  32. lkcape

    Neil, it’s fairly simple.Dan, quite rightly, suggested that the the view of the offended needs be respected.I was merely broadening the discussion to include a variety of pejorative descriptions which could be termed offensive and wondered whether political or any pejorative comment might also fall under the aegis of some sort of “governing” police.Why? Because that is what the argument suggests.

  33. Nial Liszt

    **Simple answer. The affected community gets to decide. And the rest of us have to respect that. That’s how “African-American” came into use almost overnight.**I missed how this preference was tabulated. Was Teresa Heinz given a vote? Might a black, Kenyan national in one of your classes be entitled to take offense if “described” as African-American?

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