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