Yesterday brought new information about the Sunday comic strip I discussed in "Refreshing the S-word", 3/30/2014. We learned from Michael Cavna ("PEARLS BEFORE ‘NEIN’: Stephan Pastis finds irony in Post nixing strip about word choice…because of word choice", Washington Post 3/31/2014) why the Washington Post decided not to run that strip:
IN YESTERDAY’S “Pearls Before Swine,”, creator Stephan Pastis used his characters to engage in a playful dialogue over word choice. In the strip, Rat is talking to Goat about how certain words fall out of favor for more politically correct or gender-neutral terms. The culturally obsolete terms, Rat says, include “maid,” “stewardess,” “secretary” and “midget.”
Post editors were with Pastis … right up until “midget.” The M-word was enough to get the strip spiked. The print edition of Sunday’s comics ran an old “Pearls Before Swine” instead. (The “midget” strip did run, however, in the online version of The Post. Pastis said he had not heard of the strip being spiked by any other of his 600-plus newspaper clients.)
Post comics producer Donna Peremes flagged the strip and discussed it with Deputy Style Editor Eva Rodriguez. “We thought that ‘midget’ just wasn’t the same as ‘secretary.’ … Sort of apples and oranges,” Peremes explains to Comic Riffs. ” ‘Midget’ just carried a lot more of a charge — seemed more of a slur — than ‘stewardess’ or ‘secretary.’ ”
Apparently the editorial standards of the WaPo comics page are more rigorous than those in the rest of the operation. The same word "midget" made it into the same newspaper three times last month, all in rather pejorative uses:
"Egg whites work magic to make filling omelet for 2", 3/31/2014:
A three-egg omelet made the usual way comprises a substantial meal for one person. But a souffled omelet made with three whole eggs —plus two whites — makes the traditional omelet look like a midget and is more than enough for two people.
Robert J. Samuelson, "The verdict on the economic stimulus", 3/16/2014:
Yet, despite unprecedented post-World War II deficits, the recovery has been weak. In its first three years, it averaged about half the growth of earlier postwar expansions. There’s the puzzle: monster stimulus, midget recovery.
Jaime Fuller, "Politicians: Masters of not-so-great expectations", 3/14/2014:
It may be a measure of our political maturity that we no longer expect heroism in our political leaders, a lowering of expectations that has produced candidates like George Bush and Michael Dukakis. Or it may be that the demands we place on those who are supposed to inspire us have grown so outlandish that no human can meet them, leaving those who try looking like midgets.
And the Post featured 28 stories containing the word dwarf in March of 2014. Most of these were verbal uses like this:
The CEO of Italian energy company Eni says he’s optimistic that Italy has a secure gas supply from Libya in case imports from Russia are hurt by sanctions. But the amounts, analysts warn, are dwarfed by the size of Russian supplies.
But there were more than a few like this:
While Jack’s on the job, the bodies of those who stand athwart his mission — including a Serbian-Roma dwarf (Martin Klebba), a one-eye pimp (rapper/actor Kirk “Sticky Fingaz” Jones) and a vaguely Cajun-sounding front desk clerk who uses a wheelchair but doesn’t need one (Crispin Glover) — start piling up.
Interestingly, the Wiktionary entry for midget has for sense 4
(sometimes derogatory) Any short person.
whereas the entry for dwarf has as sense 2
(now often offensive) A person of short stature, often one whose limbs are disproportionately small in relation to the body as compared with normal adults, usually as the result of a genetic condition.
indicating that dwarf is "often offensive" while midget is only "sometimes derogatory". I would have agreed that the negative connotations of dwarf seems more offensive than those of midget. However, the section on Terminology of the Wikipedia entry for dwarfism explains that
The appropriate term for describing a person of particularly short stature (or with the genetic condition achondroplasia) has historically been ambiguous, and has developed euphemistically over the past few centuries. [...]
The terms "dwarf", "little person", "LP", and "person of short stature" are now generally considered acceptable by most people affected by these disorders. [...]
"Midget", whose etymology indicates a "small sandfly," came into prominence in the mid-19th century after Harriet Beecher Stowe used it in her novels Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands and Old Town Folks where she described children and an extremely short man, respectively. Later some people of short stature considered the word to be offensive because it was the descriptive term applied to P. T. Barnum's dwarfs used for public amusement during the freak show era.
And the phrase "some people of short stature consider the word to be offensive" seems too mild to describe the WaPo's reaction, which mirrors what we find e.g. in this 2005 letter to Roger Ebert ("Dwarfs, little people and the M-word"):
I am an actor that you have reviewed neither favorably nor unfavorably in two different movies: one was “Death to Smoochy,” the other "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her.” I have absolutely no objection to you trashing a film or lauding it. I do object to the use of the word "midgets" in your review of “Death to Smoochy.”
As a writer you are aware of the power of words. The use of the word midget is, for Little People, equated with any other hate word someone might use to describe a minority group. I simply ask you: if you were to see Little People children would you take away their humanity in the same way with the use of such a hate word? I can respect a yes answer but I cannot respect the person who answers yes.
Or the reaction described in Emily Heil's 12/13/2012 WaPo story "Hank Johnson forswears the word 'midget'":
Turns out, the language one uses in speeches on the House floor is no small matter. Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) today apologized for using what he terms “the m-word” during a speech the previous evening.
What is this shocking term? Midget.
The Georgia Democrat used the word — offensive to some, who prefer the term “little people” to describe those with dwarfism, he noted today — in a metaphor about the Michigan labor situation in which he made a point about an unfair matchup. “What happens when you put a giant with a midget in a cage fight?” he asked rhetorically.
Today, he said he has since learned that the language is “no longer socially acceptable,” much like the “n-word,” which he said used to be widely used but is no longer. “It was out of ignorance, not spite or hatred,” he said. “I will never use that term again.”
The New York Times stylebook, cited in this 1/16/2014 Public Editor's post, has adopted part of this perspective:
dwarf(s) (n.). Use this as the usual term for people with a genetic condition resulting in unusually short stature. Midget, once used to describe dwarfs of otherwise normal proportions, is now widely considered offensive and should be avoided. Little people, while preferred by many, suggests euphemism and may be confusing in many contexts.
If this viewpoint spreads to Canada, things will be change a lot, since at this time of year there are thousands of news stories about midget hockey, and more than a few mentions in parliament.
Stephan Pastis, the author of the Pearls Before Swine strip, has had life experiences that should prepare him for objections from comics-page editors and others:
The 46-year-old author of widely-read comic “Pearls Before Swine” spoke of how he became a comic artist at a Jersey City bookstore Saturday afternoon as part of a signing event for his latest book, “Pearls Falls Fast.”
By the time the 4 p.m. event began, more than 100 fans had crammed into Word bookstore on Newark Avenue to hear Stephan Pastis speak about his work and to get their copy of “Pearls Falls Fast” signed.
When Pastis told the crowd he used to be a full-time litigation lawyer defending big-time insurance companies, he switched his presentation to a slide that read, “You can boo now,” earning him a laugh from the audience.
“I didn’t like it,” he said, noting that when he first submitted his comic strips to syndicates, he wrote in his cover letters, “Please tell me you like this comic so I can quit my stupid lawyer job.”
After his comic strips were initially rejected for being too dark, Pastis said he started spending all his lunch breaks at his law firm reading Dilbert comics and learning how to write three-panel strips.