The Etymology of Dwarfism
The best thing you can call our daughter is “Rebecca” or “Becky.” The worst is “midget”. Everything else — “little person,” “LP,” “dwarf,” “person with dwarfism,” “achon,” “hey you,” — falls somewhere in between. Before we started attending LPA meetings, my wife Barbara and I would have guessed that dwarf and “midget” were equally offensive (or inoffensive), and that little person, a term with which we were vaguely aware, was probably the most acceptable. It turns out to be a whole lot more complicated than that.
Once, at an LPA parents’ meeting, I heard an average-size mother say that she nearly burst into tears of rage the first time someone referred to her dwarf child as a “midget”. Why? I wondered. Before her daughter had been born, I couldn’t imagine that this mother was any more capable of parsing dwarf and “midget” than we had been. Within the dwarf community, the response to what is sometimes called “the M-word” is visceral; but, obviously, it is also learned. To me, it makes more sense to educate people than it does to excoriate them for a violation of political correctness that they don’t even know they are committing.
Dwarf is an ancient word dating back many centuries. In the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the meaning of dwarf is straightforward and neutral: “A human being very much below the ordinary stature or size.” The dictionary traces uses of the word as far back as the year 700. By contrast, “midget” was coined only in 1865, and its definition goes to the heart of why it is so deeply unpopular: “An extremely small person; spec. such a person publicly exhibited as a curiosity.” In other words, it’s impossible to think of the word “midget” without placing it within the context of the freak show, of the circus, of “midget” villages, and of Munchkins traipsing about the Land of Oz. Then, too, the root of “midget” is midge. And as the short-statured artist Jacki Clipsham puts it, “A midge is a small insect that can be killed with impunity.”
For some reason, “midget” has another meaning as well. It refers only to a dwarf whose limbs are in the same proportion to his body as an average-size person’s — generally, to people whose short stature is the result of a hormonal deficiency rather than a genetic bone anomaly, as is the case with achondroplasia and other skeletal dysplasias. Because “midget” was coined at the height of P. T. Barnum’s career, and because his most famous performers, Charles Stratton and Lavinia Warren, were proportionate dwarfs, it is often assumed that it was Barnum himself who came up with the word. There is, however, no evidence for that. The word “midget” did not appear anywhere in Barnum’s 1855 autobiography, The Life of P. T. Barnum. In fact, he referred to Stratton repeatedly as a “dwarf.”
The OED is cryptic as to the 1865 origin of “midget”, attributing it to “W. Cornw. Words in Jrnl. R. Inst. Cornw.” Thanks a lot! But the dictionary entry also notes that, in 1869, it was used specifically to refer to a small person in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Old Town Folks: “Now you know Parson Kendall’s a little “midget” of a man.” Stowe’s usage, may, in fact, be the true origin of “midget”.
I put the matter to A. H. Saxon, the author of a highly regarded biography of Barnum, and, like Barnum and Stowe, a life-long resident of Connecticut. He wrote back:
As to Barnum, to the best of my knowledge he did not coin the term “midget” &, as you know, used the word “dwarf” when referring to the Thumbs, Nutts, &c. I have seen him use the word “midget” in a few of his letters written toward the end of his life — the 1880s — but he must have picked it up from someone else. He was a great reader, of course, & knew the Beechers.
The deep unpopularity of the M-word is a fairly recent phenomenon. Indeed, in the freak shows of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dwarf had a more negative connotation than “midget”, according to the historian Robert Bogdan, because dwarfs were farther down the pecking order, and were assigned more degrading roles:
The terms “midget” and dwarf had important social meaning in the amusement world. Small people who were well-proportioned — “perfect humans in miniature” — in particular coveted the term “midget” for themselves as a way of disaffiliating from the more physically deformed dwarf exhibits. For midgets, who were typically cast in the high aggrandized mode, to be called a “dwarf” was like being called a “child”: it was an insult. “Dwarfs” were associated with exotic freak or circus clown roles, and these roles midgets shunned.
As we have seen, the word had not fallen into disfavor even by 1957 when Billy Barty held the first get-together for dwarfs under the name “midgets of America.” And when it turned out that many of the people who showed up in Reno were disproportionate, Barty’s solution was to change the name to Little People of America — not because “midget” was considered offensive, but because Barty wanted a name that both proportionate and disproportionate members, midgets and dwarfs, could accept. Soon, little people became the preferred term.
It’s understandable why the newly empowered dwarf community settled on little people: it’s safe, benign, euphemistic, coined at a time when people liked euphemisms. What’s not entirely clear, though, is why dwarf eventually made a comeback, whereas “midget” slid into unacceptability. Certainly a lot of it has to do with the idea of being displayed in public. Dwarf is harsh, guttural, but its origins are less emotionally charged. Still, it took a younger, more politically active, in-your-face generation to popularize its use. Len Sawisch, who was involved in the creation of the Dwarf Athletic Association of America in the 1980s, says that the use of the D-word was initially quite controversial. Angela Muir Van Etten told me that the title of her 1988 autobiography, Dwarfs Don’t Lie in Doll Houses, was so unpopular among some LPA members that she thinks it hurt sales. But dwarf slowly grew in acceptance to the point at which, today, it’s probably more popular with people under, say, fifty, than little person is. In the 1990s some younger activists even took a stab at changing the name of LPA to reflect this new consciousness, with the American Association of People with Dwarfism being a typical suggestion. The matter was dropped because too many older members were still uncomfortable with dwarf. But the little person legacy remains something of a sore spot.
“I think that little person, to an intellectual, sounds very derogatory,” says Matt Roloff, a former president of LPA. “It sounds more derogatory than the word “midget”. Just instinctively, people think little person would be a demeaning term.” Adds Sawisch: “Little people is just euphemistic crap. If I had anything to say about it, I would get rid of the term little people before I’d get rid of the term “midget”. My compromise as a young man was to grab ahold of the term dwarf.
Certainly one reason that dwarf has grown in acceptance is that it is rarely used in a truly derogatory context. By contrast, “midget” is often used as an epithet, a derisive description. I think it’s significant that when the intent is to put down a little person who also happens to be disproportionate, the M-word is what gets invoked, even though it supposedly pertains only to proportionate dwarfs. Think of “midget wrestling,” a term that stuck even though most of the performers were achondroplasia dwarfs. In Massachusetts in the 1980s, a judge whose budget was getting squeezed over a political hiring dispute angrily referred to the then-president of the state senate, who was unusually short, as a “corrupt midget” — a nickname that stuck thanks to the gleeful efforts of a tabloid columnist.
Now the dwarf community may be slowly coming full circle, embracing “midget” as a way of lessening its sting. Danny Black, an entertainer and talent agent who is an achondroplasia dwarf, has enraged many people in LPA circles by selling T-shirts featuring such phrases as midget PORN STAR and midget PETTING ZOO, the latter accompanied by a cartoon of a dwarf being patted on the head — the sort of all-too-typical encounter with the average-size world that many LPs complain bitterly about. But despite the criticism that Black engenders, his best (indeed, practically his only) customers are dwarfs. Black says he’s trying to reclaim “midget” the way more politicized parts of the gay community have reclaimed queer and the way some parts of the African-American community have made the N-word acceptable, at least among themselves. “Resignification,” he calls it, the idea being that a minority group can change what an epithet means — or signifies — by embracing it for its own use.
Like Jacki Clipsham, Matt Roloff, and Len Sawisch, Black is uncomfortable with little people. “To me, I cringe at that,” he told me. “‘Little’ — a term of insignificance. A term meaning ‘childlike’,’ a term meaning ‘not as great as something big.’ But at the same time we’re going around saying, ‘Think big, think big.’ Are we denying something here? What’s going on? Thinking big, but we’re little people. You see Fisher-price little-people toys, little-people day care. It’s childlike, it’s insignificance.”
At the same LPA parents meeting where I heard the mother say how hurt she felt when someone called her daughter a “midget,” Joan Hare — a dwarf who runs the disability resource Center at the College of San Mateo, near San Francisco — talked about how the language of dwarfism is evolving. Her father, she said, would get quite upset whenever he heard the M-word. Yet her twenty-three-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who’s also a dwarf, uses the term “midget” with her friends. Like Danny Black, Joan Hare compared “midget” to queer and the N-word, and talked about how gays and blacks have reclaimed those words in part to drain them of their potency.
“Once you take a word back,” she said, “it has no power to hurt.”
Dan Kennedy is a visiting professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix. His articles have also appeared in publications such as The New Republic, Salon and Slate. He is the editor of the Little People of America website. He lives in Danvers, MA with his family and can be reached through his personal Web site at dankennedy.net. This excerpt appears here with permission from the author.