Why don’t we just...
stop using the word “midget”?

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Most minority groups have that one word that is off limits within society. Some are less acceptable to use than others. You know which words I mean but you probably don’t know that the term “midget” is offensive to the vast majority of people with dwarfism. Maybe you have used it, thinking that it is the correct word to use to refer to someone with dwarfism. It is hard to know what is the right word, when “midget” is used so freely within the media.

Often referred to by people with dwarfism as the m-word, it is a term derived from the word “midge”, meaning gnat or sandfly. Its origin automatically dehumanises people like me. It was a term popularised during the Victorian freak show, where many disabled people, including people with dwarfism, were oppressed and exploited. It was where people with bodies that exceeded normal expectations were put on display for others to stare at and often mock.

I am often asked, what is the difference between a midget and a dwarf. To me, the difference is “midget” is offensive, whereas “dwarf” is not. “Midget” has no medical connotations, but rather is a word popularised within the freak shows in order to differentiate between two different types of dwarfism. In the freak shows, a midget referred to a person with proportionate dwarfism. They were just short, as opposed to a person with dwarfism (or dwarf) who has a disproportionate body size. People like me, who have a disproportionate body size, were seen as undesirable, as we were not as aesthetically pleasing as those who were just short.

It seems that whilst freak shows began to fade away at the turn of the 20th century, much of their problematic legacy lives on. “Midget” is a word used freely by the media, as well as a name used for various products, including Midget Gems. The use of the term on many branded items allows its presence to be maintained within society. It is not hard to imagine that had these sweets been given another name associated with a derogatory term which refers to another minority group that they would have been either removed or renamed. The constant use of the word in the media and on products allows its popularity to flourish, which has implications for people with dwarfism in society.

As a person with dwarfism I have had to endure this word being shouted at me in the street. People will shout “Oi, midget!” or “Look, there’s a midget!” These reactions reflect their belief that people with dwarfism are acceptable to make fun of. These experiences tell me that I do not belong and that whilst the freak shows may have disappeared the attitudes that popularised them still remain prominent within society. They will continue to remain the same unless we start to challenge them. To do this, we need to demonstrate how the word “midget” is no longer acceptable to use.

“Midget” needs to be recognised as a form of hate speech, just like various other derogatory words are, which are associated with other minority groups. Hate speech includes words that humiliate and degrade different groups of people. To use a term that is from a form of entertainment that paraded people with dwarfism in order to provoke stares and laughter from the audience serves to humiliate and degrade people with dwarfism in modern society. Recognising the word as a form of hate speech will help to remove its use within the media and slowly help to diminish
its use within society.

Erin Pritchard is a lecturer in disability studies at Liverpool Hope University

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Interact: Responses to Why don’t we just… stop using the word “midget”?

  • Jade
    12 Mar 2024 09:48
    I’m sorry you feel the word midget is offensive, especially when you have a medical condition that has a name. For my use though, I think the word midget is very appropriate and I’m definitely not offended when people refer me to as one as that’s how I identify my own height. I’m a 4ft 7inch woman, and I don’t have dwarfism, or any medical condition to why in this height, and actually I have seen many people with dwarfism taller than I am. I think it’s more a preference to be honest. I am well aware some people would rather the word ‘little people’ and again it’s down to individual preference. It’s a well written article, I do disagree with the word midget being offensive however, but I appreciate when referring to yourself you would prefer the word dwarf to be used.
  • Jim
    12 Mar 2023 05:31
    I can sympathize with the author to a certain degree but may I say that the height, weight, color physical abilities of a person are not as important as the gifts, talents and abilities that they possess. Everyone is unique and there are no two people in the world alike. In every physical category I mentioned, there are people who have greatly succeeded in life in spite of how they look. In many cases, they took their physical characteristics and turned them into advantages for success. My life experience has shown me that who I see myself to be is much more important than how others see me. My self-worth is not dependent on how other see me. What are your unique gifts, talent and abilities that make you unique? Focus on them an how you can use them to your advantage or to help someone else. Size, shape, color, physical abilities will then have little influence upon your success in life. For me it was that I had bright red (orange hair) and I blushed very easily to the point that my skin would turn dark red. I was called "carrot top" and in my college yearbook under my picture, I was called the "eternal blush". Did it bother me, not much, because I saw the talents, gifts and abilities that no other person had quite like mine. How other people saw me was their problem not mine. I would not let them be my problem. So may I suggest for all of us who have come into this world, look at your uniqueness and focus on what you have and not what you don't. Don't let others define you. You define yourself as a wonderfully, gifted, uniquely designed human being and go for it! You will rise to the top if you see your self that way....and be blessed!
  • ml
    07 Jun 2022 23:38
    I was unaware of the derogatory connotation of that word until very recently. I think a lot of the public doesn't think of the word as offensive, so it is good to raise awareness
  • Richard
    30 May 2022 04:37
    I do nor even have dwarfism but I am still short and being called a midget. It is getting really upseting. How do I stop this
  • Disability News Service 13th January - DPAC
    13 Jan 2022 21:40
    […] in August 2020 in Big Issue North, she said the word “midget” originally came from the word “midge”, a type of small […]
  • Robert
    13 Jan 2022 21:38
    The word does not refer primarily to people. It refers to anything small. Like a car, a submarine, a sweet. If a word is used offensively it's not a reason to ban the word. What about cow, slag, prick, mongol, yank? These are all words with other meanings.
  • John Roberts
    15 Jul 2021 17:34
    I'm in my 70s, and the current dictionary.com meaning of 'dwarf': "a person of abnormally small stature owing to a pathological condition, especially one suffering from cretinism or some other disease that produces disproportion or deformation of features and limbs." is what we were taught it meant - hardly a flattering (nor accurate) label to apply to onself if one is very short but perfectly proportioned, as my great-uncle and great-aunt were.
  • Rick Crane
    20 Mar 2021 09:59
    What most people don't realize is that the term "Midget" referred to the type of little people that were featured in films of the 1930's and 40's. For instance, ALL of the little people in "The Wizard of Oz" were "midgets" and there was not a single Dwarf in the entire film. There were no dwarfs in ANY films at the time. By "dwarf" I am referring to the short limbed type of person with a rounded forehead, like Peter Dinklage. This type of dwarf waddles when they walk and are deformed in comparison to the more proportioned type of "Dwarf" or "Midget" that used to be featured in films like "Terror comes to Tinytown" . They simply didn't ever use the type of little people in films today because in comparison to the more proportioned types, I guess that they were more cosmetically pleasing to audiences. The reason that you NEVER see these types of Midgets in films is because of a Medical discovery. At a certain point in the late 40's they were able to develop a hormonal shot, that when a child is born with this condition, they are cured before it stunts their growth. If you want to see exactly what I mean, watch any of the old films, featuring "Midgets" and you won't see any of the short limbed people with "dwarfism" that are in films today.
  • John
    24 Jan 2021 09:27
    When I was growing up I hated the word 'dwarf' - hated the Victorian era-sound of it, the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs connection with the odd characters, and the implication that the person was somehow handicapped. I asked my parents when the world get rid of the word 'dwarf'. I told my them I would much rather be called a midget, which was which was understood not to imply disability, but dash, sportiness and verve just like the car. Peter Dinklage himself believes that use of the word “dwarf” serves to reinforce negative stereotypes.
  • Norfolk lad
    21 Jan 2021 14:30
    Unfortunately I this to be a double edged sword, I agree wholeheartedly that any insult is just not acceptable behavior, but by drawing attention to the term it advertises itself to the ignorant and undiciplined, and it becomes ammunition that they may otherwise have not been aware of. Perhaps we might be better served by looking at it slightly differently ourselves and adopting it as a way of differentiating between the two conditions. I feel much the same with the "N" word, again, reaction fuels aggression. I know this is not what the majority of us feel when encountering the wrong doers, and we may be unable to protect ouselves physically, but mentally it might just help. I have used a concealed "button" camera, to capture verbal abusers and forwarded it to the Police, but it does take a lot of restraint and courage to take it all the way. No convictions yet though, but I am trying.
  • Troy Waterman
    22 Aug 2020 17:23
    Well said! Thank you. I lived that all my live including my mom. In 54 year old male.

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