The corrections column co-editor on… whether the use of the word 'pygmy' is racist


When working through the seemingly endless list of requests for correction, complaints and queries sent to the readers' editor's office by email each day, the desire to provide responses to as many messages as possible – and within a reasonable time – sometimes leads to a too-hasty rush to judgment.

This was perhaps the case just over a week ago, after a few readers complained about a . The article, published a couple of days after the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, opened with a reference to that famous oration, then went to criticise modern-day campaigners who take direct action on issues such as fracking and badger culls, saying: "King's heirs are not the pygmy protesters who move from one fashionable campsite and cause to another. They are those who fight courageously for human rights that are still denied across the world."

At the heart of the complaints was the suggestion that the use of the phrase "pygmy protesters" was racist, although one reader also said that its use denigrated "small people in general". Several comments under the article online made similar points; some were particularly offended that the phrase was not just in the article but also in the headline ("Today's pygmy protesters are no heirs to Martin Luther King", which was abbreviated to "These pygmy protesters" in print).

After about half an hour, having consulted several dictionaries and searched the internet for other views on the use of "pygmy" as a pejorative, I responded to the first two complaints with a brief email. I said I didn't think there was any insult in the use of "pygmy" in this long-standing figurative sense (Collins: "a person of little importance or significance") and that the Guardian style guide distinguishes the general use of the word from the specific by saying it should be .

But after the arrival of a third complaint – sent direct to the Comment desk, then forwarded to the readers' editor – I decided to speak to the editors who had handled the column. Before it was published, they said, they'd had a brief discussion about whether "pygmy protesters" was offensive or just a bit old-fashioned, decided that they thought it was probably the latter and, having come to this conclusion, chose – reasonably, in my view – to use this striking and alliteratively appealing phrase in the headline. However, they said, in the light of the complaints received they would probably come to a different conclusion the next time they edit a piece that uses the word.

What about the general case? Should "pygmy", used as a pejorative, be banned from the pages of the Guardian? The style guide editor ; respondents were divided on the issue. Later, I sent an email to all Guardian editorial staff asking for their opinions, and around 30 replied. Again there was a broad spectrum of opinion, from "it very clearly is racist" to almost the opposite, but most tended toward avoiding its use. A few were at least as concerned that its use was insulting to people of short stature.

One raised the fact that "Pygmy" is not actually an ethnic group, but a word , going on to ask whether, given that it "isn't a race but a rather arbitrary size categorisation … we are going to expunge all insulting language [if] it demeans someone?"

Another cautioned: "At what point do we start knocking words out of the lexicon? One complaint? A dozen? Two hundred tweets? Two MPs complaining? Fifty letters to the readers' editor?"

These are good questions: while we try to be careful about the words we use in areas such as , and , no one wants to see the language impoverished unnecessarily.

Yet another was interested in the history of the term's usage. The Oxford English Dictionary lists a first citation from 1483 and says it came into the language from the Latin word Pygmaeus, meaning "a member of a legendary race of dwarfs usually located in Ethiopia or India". By 1533 it was also being used to refer to any person of very small stature, and by the late 16th century it had acquired the pejorative meaning still in use today. Its use to refer to peoples of short stature in south-east Asia has been traced back to 1841, and when Europeans encountered similarly sized ethnic groups in equatorial towards the end of the 19th century, the word was applied to them.

One might argue that it's this last meaning of the word that should be avoided. However, Survival International – the charity that works for the rights of tribal peoples around the world – says on its website: The website does not, though, offer any advice on whether the pejorative sense of the word should be avoided.

So, where does all that leave us? My view has shifted since a week ago: while I still don't think there's a clearcut case for the word to be banned – and I certainly don't think there was any racist intent in its use by Nick Herbert – I think that the style guide should perhaps acknowledge that some people do find it offensive and/or racist, and suggest that it might be best avoided. But before we amend our guidance, what's your view?

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