WaPo nixes midget

« previous post | next post »

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,"[33] 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.[13] 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.



  1. Ginger Yellow said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 6:47 am

    Regardless of the decision to spike the cartoon in the first place, it seems a very strange decision to spike it in the print edition and not in the online one. Presumably the thought process was some variant of the "kids at the breakfast table" argument you sometimes hear in defence of the US press's extreme prudishness. But in practice, surely more young people read the WaPo online than in print. Maybe they felt people viewing it online would would have sought it out, and wouldn't stumble upon it by accident, but I don't find that line of argument any more persuasive in this context than in the jurisprudence on obscenity on OTA vs cable TV.

    The strip’s joke, Pastis notes to Comic Riffs, turns on one person — in this case, a deskbound man perched guru-like on a mountaintop — being the “word decider.” (In the strip, this bearded would-be Zenmaster goes by the name Willy — as in, say, “willy-nilly.”)

    Or as in the mildly taboo word for penis.

  2. MattF said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 6:55 am

    I believe the online version of the strip wasn't censored because it's hosted on a syndicated comic strip site external to the WaPo. In any event, it's pretty ridiculous that the newspaper censored a strip about the development of euphemisms. Willy, though, would be proud of them.

  3. mollymooly said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:07 am

    From 1991:

    A United Nations translation error in a February speech by Iraq's ambassador, who intended to say his nation's enemies were "people of small stature," had him calling them "pygmies," prompting a protest by the ambassador from Zaire and earning a rare Iraqi apology.

    I doubt that Abdul Amir A. Al-Anbari really said the literal Arabic equivalent of "people of small stature"; whatever he said, he certainly meant it as an insult.

  4. great unknown said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:30 am

    Astronomers, having deplanetized Pluto, can now turn to reforming much of their lexicon: "Afro-American stars", "small-stature stars", etc.

    But the attitude of the WaPo begs the question: what is the PC version of "mental midget [forgive me, for I have sinned]"?

    [(myl) If you're concerned for the fate of your soul, you probably need to keep Matthew 5:22 in mind:

    but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.

    Or in the NASB translation:

    But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ' You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.

    If your disposition is more adventurous, you could join Stephan Pastis himself in using an entirely vegetable-based metaphor expression (though I may be underestimating the potential offense to the microcephaly lobby):

    Pastis spent some time addressing the criticism he received from some readers over his comic strips, calling them “hordes of oversensitive peabrains.”


  5. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:41 am

    I am sure I was taught that 'dwarf' (as applied to humans) and 'midget' had distinct meanings, 'dwarf' (as it says above) applying to those with disproportionate limbs, while 'midget' applied specifically to those who were short but normally proportioned.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 8:45 am

    I suppose that were Pastis to do a strip involving astronomy, in order to get printed in the WaPo, he would have to describe celestial objects as "little stars."

    [(myl) There does not seem to be any comparable groundswell of opposition to dwarf, at least at present.]

    BTW, will giants become "big people?" Or, maybe "giant" is a positive characteristic.

    [(myl) For whatever reason, there does not seem to be a gigantism community concerned about nomenclature.]

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 9:03 am

    Andrew: I was thinking that too. In fact, well within living memory it was considered offensive to refer to a little person with typical proportions as a dwarf; the preferred term was "midget", as noted here in regard to circus performers.

  8. Lazar said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 11:19 am

    @Andrew, Jeff: I've heard the same thing about the "midget"/"dwarf" distinction (I'm in my 20s, and I think my parents told me). But as that Google Books link hints, perhaps this distinction was always chiefly one of performer-speak. I'm not sure that the medical profession ever used the terms in that way, and it seems as though no one self-identifies as a midget today.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 11:37 am

    Lazar: The midget-dwarf distinction was in ordinary usage, as in some of the examples in Histories of the Normal and the Abnormal—and my parents told me too. (I'm in my fifties.)

  10. octopus said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 11:43 am

    I had the same reaction as the Post editors. It's not hard for me to imagine Willy the Word Decider being the head of the airline committee that decided to replace "stewardess" with "flight attendant," because even though I understand the reasons for the decision, I'm familiar with the feeling that language is being changed by faceless, humorless corporate forces. But I KNOW it wasn't Willy who decided "midget" was an unkind and offensive word. Actual Little People got to make that decision.

  11. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 12:14 pm

    The google books n gram viewer (in the American-through-2009 subcorpus) shows "flight attendant" pulling ahead of "stewardess" only in 1997, which is a bit more recent than I would have expected. I find I cannot reliably reconstruct from my memory what one typically called males occupying that position back before "flight attendant" became a common-to-dominant variant.

    The Replacements' comical anti-stewardess song "Waitress In the Sky" (recorded 1985, lyrics by Paul Westerberg) puts it together with euphemisms for two traditionally male low-status occupations: "Sanitation expert and a maintenance engineer / A garbageman, a janitor, and you, my dear."

  12. Brett said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 12:54 pm

    My father, a physician, taught me the dwarf/midget distinction as a medically valid one. This included explaining the different kinds of physiological mechanisms that led to the two distinct conditions (which, however, I forgot very quickly).

  13. Rubrick said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

    I'm generally of the view that people should be called whatever they decide they should be called. But I've often been puzzled by the choice of "Little People" — "little" is hardly a word burgeoning with dignity in our lexicon. It also has semantic difficulties: if I say "My daughter is a Little Person" I doubt an average listener will grasp my meaning. It also bothers me a little that it collapses (at least) two distinct physical conditions into a single term.

  14. James said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 5:47 pm

    The dwarf/midget distinction is at the root of the issue of offensiveness, I believe. The word "midget" was employed to describe people of "normal" proportion, as mentioned above, in effect creating a pseudo-scientific category of little people who were somehow superior to other, less "normal" people. As such, it's a very freighted term.

    The word "dwarf" seems to retain some legitimacy, stemming as it does from an actual medical term, but is still far less favored for general use than the term "little person," which is more neutrally descriptive. Or so I understand.

  15. Auntturtle said,

    April 1, 2014 @ 7:50 pm

    Removing "midget" removes a useful word, without a good replacement. There seem to be two kinds of people who lack a certain measure of stature, also known as "Little people:" (1) dwarfs, who are short and have measureabley disproportionate head and limbs, and (2) (midgets), who are short without measureable disproportion of head and limbs. What word should be used for category (2) if "midget" is not acceptable?

  16. Bob Lieblich said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    When will the Post decide to spike all stories about the Washington Native Americans football team that mention the team's actual current name?

  17. David Morris said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 7:14 am

    Cavna's article, quoted in Mark's post, mentions 'politically correct … terms'. Two of the difficulties with any discussion of political correctness are that there is no universal agreement of what the term means, or what it includes and excludes. People throw accusations of 'it's not politically correct to say …' or 'it's political correctness gone mad' at anything they don't like. It's a bit like accusations of 'passive voice' towards anything the speaker/writer doesn't like but can't say why (and can't actually identify – see Geoffrey Pullum's various posts).
    In the free commuter newspapers on Sydney's trains this evening, there was a quotation from the boss of the Mercedes F1 team, who said to his drivers 'We cannot be complacent because we saw a Red Bull ride up our arse – I know that's not politically correct'. (Red Bull is another F1 team, I hope!) I can't see that there's anything politically incorrect about that statement – it's rather crudely expressed, but it simply states that the other team is sitting closely behind the first team on the points table.

  18. Mr Punch said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 7:27 am

    Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University, whose Media Nation blog is at dankennedy.net, has written extensively on this. (He's anti-"midget.")

  19. eva said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 8:24 am

    @Bob Liebich – preferably soon, maybe THEN someone in their PR department will take a hint.

  20. James said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 10:56 am

    "Removing 'midget' removes a useful word, without a good replacement. There seem to be two kinds of people who lack a certain measure of stature, also known as 'Little people:' (1) dwarfs, who are short and have measureabley disproportionate head and limbs, and (2) (midgets), who are short without measureable disproportion of head and limbs. What word should be used for category (2) if 'midget' is not acceptable?"

    This is the point–that such a distinction is not useful outside of a clinical setting (in which case you'd use medical terms such as "achondroplasia") and carries with it a denigrating value judgment. Why does it matter to random tall people if someone else has relatively shorter limbs? It's as if white people were still in the habit of referring to some people of color as black and others as "high yellow."

  21. blahedo said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 2:01 pm

    I detect more than a little bit of hypocrisy from a paper that will refuse to print a comic strip about euphemisms for using a still-widely-used term like "midget", but prints on a _daily basis_ the openly-derogatory word that names the local football team. (That is, "Redskins".) I'm not sure if any of the Post's editors have publicly taken a stance on the name of the Washington football team, but various commentators have pointed out that even if the owners are refusing to rename the team, it's very easy to refer to the team as "Washington", as in "Washington loses 14-7 to the Bears" or whatever.

  22. Rachael said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

    I didn't know "midget" was ever a technical term – I thought it was just a mildly-insulting slang term, like "titch".

    I agree with Rubrick that "Little People" seems an odd choice of preferred term. It's often used to refer to children in a cutesy context. There's also a brand of toy minifigures (like Playmobil or Happyland) called Little People; my 3-year-old (a little person, but not a Little Person) plays with them.

  23. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 4:41 pm

    The BBC is not so coy about exploring the subject through humour…


  24. J. W. Brewer said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

    @blahedo – myl had pointed out in the original post that the decision here seemed at odds with the apparent editorial policy for the same word in the non-comics-page section of the same paper. So we have institutional inconsistency, not institutionalized hypocrisy. Now if someone whose comic strip is syndicated to the WaPo wants to do a joke about the football-team-name controversy, I guess we could see if they would or wouldn't run it.

  25. Auntturtle said,

    April 2, 2014 @ 11:33 pm

    No, James, no, no, no. Words and names, in particular, are useful in distinguishing between things and states of being. Useful is good. Difference is not denigrating. Discarding useful terms is a loss in common knowledge. You ask "who cares"? Well, I do, and I guess most folks who read/write in a blog devoted to language care quite a bit.
    And Rachael, thank you, for "titch." A new word to me.

  26. octopus said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 9:39 am

    @Auntturtle: I think you're falling prey to a common error here. We all use a limited set of terms and categories to describe the world around us. We all feel that the terms and categories most familiar to us are also the most meaningful and accurate. But in fact, there's a potentially infinite number of ways to describe the world, and each one has its own limitations. Being too precise can be as much a hindrance as being too broad.

    When the term "Little People" came into use, it gave us a convenient umbrella category: people of short stature, regardless of their proportions. For everyday purposes, that's more useful than "dwarf." (And if for some reason we need to retain the old distinction, we can always say "disproportionate LP" and "proportionate LP.")

    What James illustrates with his "black"/"high yellow" example is that some terms and categories can create harmful and mostly meaningless distinctions. The American vocabulary isn't noticeably poorer for having discarded "high yellow" — we still have a vast, vast number of ways to describe people's skin color, ancestry, and social standing.

  27. Suburbanbanshee said,

    April 3, 2014 @ 3:45 pm

    The Little People are the folk of the hills, the good folk, the people of peace, the fey, the Lords and Ladies, the pharisees, the Tuatha De Danaan, the people you ABSOLUTELY DO NOT call "fairies" because you will die a horrible death or have your children stolen or suffer horrible diseases. The other little people are just short, but apparently have more scarifying power in the modern world.

    Still, I personally feel that my culture has been appropriated by non-magical persons. The good folk aren't particularly good to have around, but they have a lot of prior use of the term. "Small People" or "Short People" would have made more sense, but clearly there was a desire to trade upon comparisons with leprechauns and the like, while skating past the whole baby-stealing and holding-for-pot-of-gold-ransom thing.

  28. Tom O'Neill said,

    April 4, 2014 @ 5:19 pm

    To what extent might "dwarf" remain more acceptable than "midget," because it can serve as both a verb and a noun? In common parlance, something big is frequently said to "dwarf" something a good deal smaller.

RSS feed for comments on this post