Some thoughts about the "M"
word. In a piece for yesterday's "Week in Review" section in the
New York Times, Natalie
Angier considers the
possibility that some short adolescent males will be given human
growth hormone (hGH) in order to add a few inches.
She is talking about boys whose
height is not the result of any medical or genetic condition, and is
merely on the low side of normal. By contrast, she notes, hGH has
long been given to children -- boys and girls -- who have a type of
dwarfism known as growth-hormone deficiency. She writes that "without
the treatment, they would be true midgets, perhaps under four feet
tall as adults; with the shots, they are brought up to low-normal
Her use of the word midget
is interesting. Angier probably doesn't know this, but the M-word has
long been considered offensive within the dwarf community, in much
the same way as the N-word is considered unacceptable to
African-Americans. That is, a few dwarfs might toss the M-word at
each other as kind of an inside joke, but virtually no one wants to
hear outsiders use it.
Yet Angier's use of the phrase
true midget suggests something else -- that there is an
actual, clinical definition of the word. And in fact, the M-word has
long been restricted to those whose profound short stature is the
result of growth-hormone deficiency or some other endocrinological
cause. These people's proportions -- their arms, legs, head, and
torso -- are the same as those of "average-size people," the
politically correct term for the vast majority of us who are
unaffected by any kind of dwarfism.
By contrast, dwarf has
traditionally been reserved for people who have one or another type
of skeletal dysplasia -- that is, genetic and/or medical conditions
affecting bone development. These people, who constitute the vast
majority of the profoundly short statured, tend to have average-size
torsos, slightly larger-than-average heads, and exceedingly short
arms and legs.
So is there a good reason to
distinguish between midgets and dwarfs? Not really. The
origins of dwarf are ancient. By contrast, midget is a
made-up word whose lineage can only be traced to 1865 or
gives this as the first definition of the word: "Offensive An
extremely small person who is otherwise normally proportioned." So
even though the AHD embraces Angier's meaning, it also notes
that its use is discouraged.
The Oxford English
Dictionary (not freely available online) gets closer to the heart
of the matter:
"An extremely small person;
spec. such a person publicly exhibited as a curiosity." No
mention of proportionality, by the way. Thus, according to the
OED, the M-word is closely tied to the idea of public
performance -- of the side show, the freak show, with such latter-day
offshoots as midget wrestling and midget porn. No wonder it came to
be considered offensive.
Midget is sometimes thought
to have been coined by P.T. Barnum, but such is not the case. Barnum,
of course, was the employer of Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren --
two proportionate dwarfs who were better known as General and Mrs.
Tom Thumb. If the M-word could accurately describe anyone, it was
surely they. Yet in Barnum's 1855 autobiography, he describes both
Strattons as dwarfs. The reason is simple enough: the M-word
had not yet been invented.
These things tend to come full
circle. Next week, hundreds of dwarfs will arrived in Greater Boston
for the annual conference of Little
People of America. Among
the more politically aware members, there continues to be a simmering
debate over terminology. Some would like to reclaim midget as
their own; others do not want to hear the word at all, thank you very
Obviously the most important thing
to keep in mind is that LPA's members are all individuals.
Dwarf is a lot better than midget, but the person's
name is best of all. This is the first national LPA conference to be
held in the Boston area since 1983. Boston is not renowned for making
visitors feel welcome, but maybe this time we can make an