Monday, June 23, 2003

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 heights."

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 so.

The American Heritage Dictionary 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 much.

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 exception.

No comments: