At first glance, “midgets” and “dwarfs” seem to be interchangeable terms for describing individuals of particularly small stature. However, the words carry markedly different implications related to politeness, clinical meanings, and lived experiences. In this post, we’ll delve into the subtle but important distinctions between these two easily confused terms.
We’ll unpack definitions, standard usage, debunk misconceptions, and provide tips for utilizing sensitive language. Gaining understanding can help promote more considerate and accurate communication.
Defining “Midgets” – An Outdated, Offensive Term
Historically, the word “midget” referred to someone abnormally small in stature, often due to a medical condition:
- First used scientifically in the 19th century but now outdated in medical practice.
- Came to be applied more broadly in circus “side show” acts exhibiting people with dwarfism.
- Developed into a derogatory slur over time when used to mock or sensationalize.
- Now widely considered highly offensive by advocacy groups. The M-word represents discriminatory language.
The term “midgets” is best eliminated given its cruelty in exploiting people as oddities based on disability or medical conditions.
Explaining “Dwarfs” – Preferred Clinical and Identity Term
In contrast, “dwarfs” serves as the accepted, inoffensive term with an inherent dignity:
- Medically, describes individuals with one of over 300 genetic conditions causing short stature, like achondroplasia, the most common skeletal dysplasia.
- When used respectfully as a neutral descriptor without judgment, it reclaims identity and destigmatizes.
- Many individuals and advocacy organizations now self-identify as dwarfs and prefer this terminology when a reference to stature must be made.
So “dwarfs” designates a specific diagnosis factually without malice or sensationalism when applied considerately.
Comparing Appropriate Usage
Proper applications today:
- ❌ Outdated – “The circus hired several midgets.”
- ✅ Correct – “As someone with dwarfism, he advocated for disability rights.”
- ❌ Offensive – “Their offensive skit mocked midgets.”
- ✅ Considerate – “The talented actress has a form of dwarfism.”
Cultural Context and Shifting Sentiments
Societal perceptions have evolved with time:
- “Midgets” was once casually or even clinically used but grew pejorative with exploitation by curiosity seekers.
- “Dwarfs” was medically coined as sensitive alternative terminology.
- Disability communities reclaimed “dwarfs” with pride, self-determination, and self-identification.
- Wider society is learning to eliminate outdated language and listen to marginalized groups.
Active listening and dialogue move us forward in cultural healing.
Important Notes on Usage
When language must reference stature, keep in mind:
- Referencing anyone’s anatomy should only be done for relevant medical reasons or with consent based on personal preference.
- Individuals with dwarfism have diverse opinions, but “dwarfs” remains most widely preferred neutral term.
- Dehumanizing language should always be avoided. No excuses.
Learn from cross-cultural discussions but avoid assumptions.
At surface level “midgets” and “dwarfs” may seem equivalent. But “midgets” now represents outdated and unequivocally offensive terminology, while “dwarfs” designates a clinical diagnosis that, when applied carefully without malice, can destigmatize differences. Considering the lived experiences behind the words allows us to promote respectful understanding, mark progress, and continually refine language to build a more inclusive world.