Wayne State University
Cite as: Anderson, John. 2016. Dwarf. Lexiculture: Papers on English Words and Culture, vol. 2, article 2. https://glossographia.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/dwarf.pdf
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
The word “dwarf” has a long and intricate history. The Oxford English Dictionary lists four different definitions for the noun form of the word. In order, they refer to humans of smaller than ordinary size, mythological creatures with skill in metalwork, small varieties of plants and animals, and stars with a small mass and a large density. Although each of these four definitions will be addressed on some level, the goal of this paper is to analyze the metalanguage surrounding the use of this word specifically in reference to people with one of the many medical conditions referred to as “dwarfism.” How do people feel about this word? What does it mean, and why do some find it offensive?
Etymology: Dwarfs, Dwarves, and Dwarrows
The English word “dwarf” comes etymologically from the Old English “dwergh.” It is possible that it came by way of the Old Norse “dvergr,” or that it comes directly from the Proto-Germanic “dwergoz” which derives from Proto-Indo-European “dhwérgwhos” (OED Online). The meaning of this word is unclear, although it possibly comes from a root meaning “to deceive.” In Germanic mythology and legend, dwarfs have a reputation as tricksters (Battles). Although generally honest, they follow after a folkloric pattern of supernatural creatures that give people what they ask for, rather than what they mean to ask for.
There is also some disagreement as to whether the plural form should be “dwarfs,” as the plural of roof is roofs, or “dwarves,” as in wolf to wolves. A refined search of Google Ngram, using only those instances of “dwarves” and “dwarfs” used as nouns and including works of fiction, shows that while dwarfs is uniformly more popular, the numbers are not as far apart as one might think:
Many attribute the origin of “dwarves” to J.R.R. Tolkien, who used this spelling in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These charts show that, although he played an important role in its entering mainstream English, this spelling did not originate with him. Most of the usages of “dwarves” before 1940 are in books about Norse mythology, with a few references to human anatomy. In 1937, both The Hobbit and Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs were released. Based on this data, the influence of the Disney film was more successful in codifying the spelling, at least until around the 1960’s, when Tolkien’s works became more popular. The usages of “dwarves” after 1980 are more varied, but many are fantasies in the style of Tolkien (Google Ngram). Interestingly, Tolkien himself considered his use of “dwarves” in The Hobbit to be a misspelling. “The real historical plural of ‘dwarf,’” he wrote, “is dwarrows anyway: rather a nice word, but a bit too archaic. Still I rather wish I had used the word dwarrow” (Tolkien). The Oxford English Dictionary lists this as the actual Middle English form of the word, although it provides no examples of its use, nor does it show up on Google Ngram. Today, both “dwarfs” and “dwarves” are commonly used, but the latter is most often used for creatures of myth or fantasy, and the former for humans with dwarfism, though this is not a hard and fast rule.
Mythology: The Origin of Dwarfs
The concept of dwarfs originates in Germanic folklore. The dwarfs of mythology bear a basic resemblance to the dwarfs of fairy tales: they are small creatures that dwell within the earth and have skill in working metals. Additionally, they were seen as a race created before humanity and were associated with ancient megaliths. They bring diseases such as warts and fever, but also are masters of healing. They shun sunlight, may or may not be spirits of the dead, and are reckoned alongside the gods and elves (Battles 32-37). While sometimes portrayed as comic figures, the race of dwarfs was envied by humanity for their wealth and skill, and they may even have been worshipped during the Viking age (Battles 70).
There actually seems to be some debate as to whether the Norse even thought of their dwarfs as small. This idea can be found in many places on the Internet, including Wikipedia (Talk:Dwarf). Proponents of the human-sized dwarf theory will call attention to the fact that dwarfs are never described as small until the thirteenth-century sagas. They also cite as evidence a carving in which the dwarf smith Reginn is shown next to the human hero Sigurd. However, there are two main pieces of evidence against this theory. First, while Reginn is a Norse dwarf name, the Reginn from this myth is not a dwarf at all. The Eddic poem “Reginsmal,” believed to be older than the sagas, describes him as a man – a mortal human – and only “dvergr of voxt”: a dwarf in stature (Battles 38). Why would the poem refer to Regin’s dwarfish height unless it was unusual? Reginn’s dwarf height was probably understood as being smaller than average, as the alternative is that he was unusually tall. Of these two interpretations, it is most likely that the image of a short dwarf persisted into the thirteenth century, rather than dwarfs went from giants to small creatures. Secondly, the carvings in question come from the Hylestad Stave Church, which was built in the late twelfth century at the earliest, and, even then, is a Christian church that cannot be said to accurately reflect the beliefs of Norse traditional religion (Giles). While the oldest sources, of which there are few to begin with, may never specifically describe dwarfs as small, they never give any indication that they are not. So it is safe to assume that when people used the word “dwarf,” they had a small creature in mind.
Reginn (left) and Sigurd (right); Hylestad stave church, 12th century Museum of Cultural History, Oslo University (Giles)
“Dwarf” as a Scientific Term: Animals and Plants, Stars and Planets
According to the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA), and Google Ngram, most of the collocates – that is, words used frequently along with the word in question – of “dwarf” are used in this sense. Some examples from COHA include “species” at number fifteen, “star” at number eight, “trees” at number two, and “white” in a clear first place. Google Ngram’s charts show that for more than fifty years, “white dwarf” has been two to ten times as common as the next runner up. It starts to come into common usage in the early 1920’s. This makes sense, as the term “white dwarf star” was coined by astronomer Willem Luyten in 1922 (Holberg).
Medical dwarfism has been known since ancient times. Images and even remains of human dwarfs have been found in Egypt, dating as far back as 4500 BCE. However, this was not seen as a form of physical handicap, and did not preclude one from holding positions of authority (Kozma). Even some gods were depicted as dwarfs. However, not every society was as accepting as the ancient Egyptians, and throughout much of history, people have alienated and persecuted those who are different. One of the ways this has happened is through the use of pejoratives and derogatory slurs. Could “dwarf” be considered such a word?
“Dwarfism” is the generally accepted common name for the group of over two hundred genetic disorders that cause an abnormal reduction of growth. The most common of these is achondroplasia, which prevents the long bones of the body such as those in the legs and arms from reaching their full size. This is what Google Ngram shows regarding the popularity of various terminologies for medical dwarfism:
Achondroplasia enters the English vocabulary in the early 1900’s, and doesn’t gain or lose much popularity over the years. This is not surprising for a scientific medical term, which would be used in only certain contexts. Dwarfism is about the same age, although it has been used in writing much more commonly, though in the past forty years or so it has been on the decline. This may represent the effects of a modern desire for political correctness. However, the generally most common term, as well as the oldest of these three, is “midget.”
The root of the word is “midge,” a variety of small, marsh-dwelling fly with a short lifespan. Naturally, this word is seen as unpleasant by many. Interestingly, the word midget was once used to describe “proportionate dwarfs,” that is, people who were less than five feet tall, but otherwise resembling healthy adults. During the late 1800’s, the era of sideshows and circuses, to call a little person a midget was to imply that they were well-formed. It was almost an affectionate term at the time. In fact the original reason why the Little People of America changed its name from “Midgets of America” was to be more inclusive to those dwarfs considered “disproportionate” (Kennedy). The connection of “midget” to this sort of physical hierarchy, along with its link to the sideshow era, contributes to its unpopularity.
In April of 2009, the New York Times manual of style made a rare revision, and declared, “that people of unusually (and medically) short stature should be referred to as dwarfs, not ‘midgets’” (Harris). For a long time, though, the Times freely used “midgets,” and only when deputy style editor Philip Corbett received letters from offended readers and did further research into the subject, uncovering its dark and problematic history, was the decision made to change. So it can be said, at least concerning the past several years, that the word “dwarf” is a perfectly acceptable term, and a welcome alternative to “midget.” However, what is considered acceptable terminology one day may not necessarily last long. One example is the various words used throughout history to describe people with cognitive illnesses, including “aments,” “cretins,” and even “idiots,” and of course, the still highly controversial “mentally retarded.” It is not at all uncommon for word meanings to change rapidly.
Portrayal in Media: Various Viewpoints
Google Ngram shows that between 1800 and 2000, “dwarf” was almost consistently used more often in works of fiction. The line graph shows that use of “dwarf” reached several peaks throughout the nineteenth century. This was the period in which the Grimm brothers published various editions of their collected fairytales, such as Snow White. Jacob Grimm was also a scholar of Germanic mythology, and he sought to revive interest in the folklore of his country. It was what Grimm found in legends that inspired both Disney and Tolkien to put dwarfs in the spotlight again in 1937, starting another rise in popularity that lasted until about 1960. But its long association with legendary creatures is what makes “dwarf” a potentially problematic term for referring to human people.
Peter Dinklage, an actor perhaps most well-known for his current role in the HBO series, Game of Thrones, explains his dislike for the way that dwarfs tend to be portrayed in works of fantasy:
“I try not to read too much into it, but there’s a bit of a bias, where you’re thought of as a mystical creature, which is a bit absurd…. I have a great sense of humor — and a dark sense of humor — about everything, but it is a bit narrow-minded sometimes, where if they have a dwarf character, the shoes have to curl up at the end, he has this inherent wisdom, he isn’t sexual, all of that. You look at something like ‘Snow White,’ and each of the dwarves is just one thing — this one sneezes, this one is angry, this one is tired. And that’s sometimes still true for modern-day stories. But it’s not just for dwarves, that could be the case for anybody, for women, for people of color. Right now it’s Middle Eastern people who are all playing terrorists. It’s short-sighted. But life is too short — no pun intended — to be interested in roles that haven’t got any meat to them.” (Vineyard)
Dinklage believes that use of the word “dwarf” serves to reinforce negative stereotypes. Still, while short actors will often find themselves typecast as one-dimensional fairytale characters, even average-sized actors are rarely able to choose what roles they want to play. And for Warwick Davis, an English actor possessing a rarer form of dwarfism known as spondyleopiphyseal dysplasia congenital, his unique stature was what allowed him to enter the field of his career to begin with. When he was eleven years old, his grandmother heard that short actors were needed to play Ewoks in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. Today he runs an agency for actors under five feet tall or taller than seven feet. Davis does not mind the use of the word dwarf, or even midget, believing that it is better to use the wrong word than to simply avoid conversation and miss out on the opportunity to gather a better understanding of people who are different. He considers being short part of what made him who he is, and tries to handle adversity with a sense of humor. “If I’d been average height I don’t think I’d have been quite so outgoing… you tend to amplify your personality a little bit, just so as you’re not forgotten” (Gilber).
So, being short can get you a place in the theater. Isn’t this just a continuation of the Barnum-era sideshow? While many of the roles that dwarfs appear in can be trivial or downright insulting, many see them as a way of earning money in order to bring them closer to their life goals, whether that is acting, painting, or medicine (Harris).
Conclusion: It’s Not What You Say, But How You Say It
What are the alternative terms? “Midget” is clearly much more offensive. “Little People” has the same connotations of fantastic creatures, along with a sense of someone who is less important – as in “standing up for the little guy.” Nor does it fit well into every kind of usage. Matt Roloff, former president of the Little People of America, believes that “to an intellectual,” “Little Person” can sound more demeaning than midget (Kennedy).
“Most individuals,” says Dr. Betty M. Adelson, “prefer simply to be called by their given names” (Harris). Regardless of the phrasing, dwarfs are human beings, and those who search for a word to describe people of short stature must be careful to avoid defining them by their condition. This remains true for any person. A derisive tone can make even a generally accepted word sound offensive. Changing a word alone will do little to change people’s opinions. A change in metalanguage begins not in the lexicon, but within the culture.
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