It seems that Simon Burns, the Tory MP for Chelmsford, was so incensed by comments from Mr. Speaker John Bercow that he described him, sotto voce, as a “stupid, sanctimonious dwarf”. But not sotto voce enough. The whispered remark was heard, recorded, and published.
And right on cue, up pops one John Connerty, founder of a group called “Walking with Giants”, to insist that this common insult is “diabolical”, and is an affront to all persons affected by Primordial Dwarfism. Health Minister Burns was forced to make a rapid but rather amorphous apology to “all groups who might have been offended”.
Perhaps Mr. Connerty should study a little etymology before he shoots from the hip. Dwarves are mythological figures. They emerge from the dark recesses of Scandiwegian saga and legend, and from the deep hinterland of the Western mind, and I’m afraid they carry rather a lot of negative baggage. In the sagas, as reflected in Wagner’s operas, they were a pretty bad lot. Reincarnated by Tolkien in “The Lord of the Rings”, there were some excellent dwarves, but they were not all to be trusted. Above all, they were not human beings.
If the term dwarf is now to be regarded as the private property of a particular group, and if they feel demeaned by its conventional use elsewhere, they surely share some of the blame, for embracing a mythological term which carries such negative connotations. I note that at least they have the wisdom to call their group “Walking with Giants” and not (say) “The National Dwarfism Association”.
I am sick to death of pressure groups coming along and telling us which words we can and can’t use this week. I remember when air-hostessing was a very high-status, glamorous occupation, but now apparently the term “Air Hostess” is demeaning. I remember when “homosexual” was simply a descriptive term, but now we are to avoid it and say “Gay”. (Why do we constantly hear the phrase “Lesbians and Gay Men”, by the way, and not “Gay People”?). I personally am reluctant to relinquish one of the most charming words in the English lexicon to a strident pressure group. But I admit I am scared to use any word to describe certain ethnic minorities, because whichever term was respectful five years ago is sure to be disrespectful now.
I shall however assert the right to continue to use the word “Dwarf”, pace Mr. Connerty, in its original mythological sense. I shall not use it to describe a human being, unless I deliberately intend it as an insult. In this context, Mr. Burns’ use of the term with regard to John Bercow seems entirely appropriate.
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