You just can’t keep a bad word down

For those of us in the dwarfism community, it sometimes seems that the outside world is mainly interested in two things: how people with dwarfism are depicted in popular culture and the continued debate over the word “midget,” which is regarded as offensive by nearly everyone within the community.

Here is former New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt’s 2009 column in which he acknowledges that the “M”-word is offensive and would no longer be used in the Times.

Last week the “M”-word popped up when commentator Bernard Goldberg used it on “The O’Reilly Factor” while critiquing former MSNBC talk-show host Keith Olbermann. In observing that Olbermann’s relatively low ratings in comparison to Fox News were nevertheless higher than anyone else’s at MSNBC, Goldberg compared Olbermann to “the tallest midget in the room.”

My friend Bill Bradford, who’s the senior vice president of Little People of America, called my attention to it on Facebook, and we hashed it out a bit. My inclination was to give a pass to Goldberg on the grounds of his well-documented cluelessness. But another friend, Julie Holland, quickly discovered that Goldberg knew exactly what he was saying. Last February, in defending the use of such charming terms as “Negro” and “retarded,” Goldberg told Bill O’Reilly:

If you use the word midget, the little people community are going to jump all over you. I mean not literally, but they’re going to get on you.

That sound you hear in the background is O’Reilly snickering.

On Sunday, meanwhile, the Boston Herald ran a feature on a show at the Seaport World Trade Center charmingly called “Motorcycles, Midgets and Mayhem,” starring dwarf wrestlers called the Half-Pint Brawlers.

Another LPA friend, District 1 director Barbara Spiegel, is quoted as objecting both to the spectacle and to the use of the “M”-word. The story, by Renee Nadeau Algarin, is benign enough, and I’m not suggesting the Herald should have ignored it. But it’s accompanied by an extensive slide show and a come-on to buy reprints. The comments are about as bad as you would expect.

There’s no question that the way people with dwarfism are depicted in the media is far more positive than it was a generation or two ago. Reality shows such as “Little People, Big World” and “The Little Couple” have helped normalize dwarfism in the eyes of the public.

Yet in the more benighted corners of the media, it seems that things haven’t changed much at all.

13 thoughts on “You just can’t keep a bad word down

  1. Bill Bradford

    Good article Dan.

    @Ken: since it appears that Neanderthals were subsumed into the human gene pool, I think calling Goldberg a Neanderthal would be an insult to us all. 😉

  2. Laurence Kranich

    I think for many people including myself, “midget” carries no more positive or negative connotation than “dwarf.” I don’t say that to be insulting. If you displayed both words on a flashcard and asked me to pick the insulting word, it would be a toss-up. Is that a bad thing? I guess it is, and I appreciate being educated on the difference.

    At one point, “retarded” was the kind word to describe a “moron.” The sad thing is that, no matter what word becomes the positive description for someone with a condition that’s different from the majority, it will probably turn into the insulting term over a period of time. Just ask the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

  3. It’s events like this one that give me the strength and desire to compete in triathlon. Not because I’m a little person, but despite the fact that I am an LP. I do so, so our some Owen can grow up knowing he can do whatever he wants with …his life and not be pigeon-holed into thinking all he will be able to do is be there for others to laugh at. I would never boycott the event or tell others they can’t do it. What we have to do is educate the public so they don’t support these events and the interest dries up. The FREAK SHOW era is over. I really feel more sorry for the people who enjoy watching this trash.

    http://teamcompmightyjy.blogspot.com/

  4. Christian Avard

    Dan,

    Jon Stewart makes mincemeat out of Goldberg whenever Goldberg sticks his neck out and acts like he’s above it all.

    Check out these two interviews from 2005 when Stewart interviewed Goldberg about his new book “100 People Screwing Up America.”

    Part I
    Part II

    Here’s one from April 20, 2010. Stewart responds to Goldberg’s criticism about Stewart for telling the Fox News network to go “expletive” themselves.

    Enjoy.

  5. Philip J. Montalbano

    i was dating a woman who was asking me the technical difference between midgets and dwarfs. i calmly explained that the term is offensive. she got really mad and began shouting “how am i supposed to know that? really? how are people supposed to know?” in the break-up talk, she brought up that she had asked a bunch of her friends and they didn’t know the “distinction,” either. i’m not sure what her point was. but this is what goes on behind closed doors.

    also, i think it is interesting to note that, with regard to what laurence writes above, retarded was something you called a moron. however, the terms “moron,” “idiot” and “imbecile” are all terms that originally were used to technically (i.e., medically or legally) describe developmentally disabled people. it does seem that discrimination actually breeds these kinds of words and not necessarily the other way around. so, all we have to do is end discrimination.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Philip: “Midget” is an invented word, possibly coined by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the 1860s. For reasons that are not entirely clear, it did take on a secondary meaning of proportionate dwarfism, but it was never a proper medical term.

      The “M”-word came to be considered offensive quite recently. The first gathering of Little People of America took place under a banner that said “Midgets of America.”

      The change came about, I think, because the “M”-word was always favored by those seeking to demean people with dwarfism — i.e., midget wrestling, midget porn. Plus the meaning has always been inextricably tied up with the idea of public display and public performance.

  6. tobe berkovitz

    Can I add another word for the consideration of the group. “Crippled” is used repeatedly in a huge number of stories. As the grandfather of a beautiful girl with many disabilities, I wish the media selected a different word in most of these situations.

  7. Dan: According to the OED, “midget” is actually just a variant of “midge” (fly, gnat), which goes back to early Old English and beyond. “Midge” was also used for “A small or insignificant person, esp. a small child” in the mid-18c, 100 years before H.B. Stowe. “Midget” for “very small thing” appears in Britain in the early 19c. And though Stowe’s 1854 quote is indeed the earliest OED cite for “midget” meaning “person,” she is using the word “midgets” to mean simply “children,” as is clear in the original text. (Of course, nothing about the word’s history has any bearing on its current acceptability. I’m just correcting the factual record here.)

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Jan: I invite you to read Chapter Seven of “Little People.” If you want to cut to the chase, search for “Dwarf is an ancient word” once you get there. Stowe used “midget” in 1869, not 1854, which is important, because it shows the word was not in use when Barnum wrote his autobiography in the 1850s. Significantly, Barnum never referred to Charles “Tom Thumb” Stratton as a midget.

      Stowe used “midget” to describe an adult, not a child: “Now you know Parson Kendall’s a little midget of a man.”

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