The offensive past tense of the term for Down syndrome

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, used with permission.

Some disability-related names have been dropped because they are now considered offensive due to their origins. Down syndrome (Trisomy 21) is just one example.

The history and name of Down syndrome

Down syndrome is a genetic disease caused by an extra chromosome, and it is the most common chromosomal abnormality in humans. The condition was originally called “Mongolism”. This term dates back to the 1860s when British physician John Langdon Down first described the disorder.

In 1866, Down published the academic article “Observations on an ethnic classification of idiots,” claiming that it was possible to categorize different types of conditions by ethnic classification. He believed that people with this disorder shared facial features with people of Mongolian descent., ethnic group,So he called it ‘Mongolism’. Down further believed that this condition was a return to an inferior race. race.The term quickly became offensive because it was racist, implying that the Mongols were inferior.

The original name was also offensive as it misrepresented the condition. But in 1959, the French geneticist Jerome Lejeune discovered its genetic cause, which is an extra copy of chromosome 21. In 1961, Lejeune and other international experts and Down’s grandson Norman asked the medical community to come up with a new name because Mongolism was a misnomer.

In 1965, the World Health Organization finally withdrew the name at the request of a delegation from the Mongolian People’s Republic who wanted to recover the name of their indigenous people. The condition has been renamed Down syndrome, after John Langdon Down, while “Down’s syndrome” is also used. (“Down Syndrome” is still in use in the UK.) When the name was changed to a more clinical and, therefore, more precise name, it helped to increase public understanding of the disease and to encourage the empathy for people born with the disease.

Representations of Down syndrome in art

During the 1960s, some thought that Down syndrome was a relatively new disease. Supporting this “modern theory,” they noted that people with the disease were not represented in ancient art. In response, others have observed historical paintings that appear to depict subjects with Down syndrome and have proposed that the disease has existed throughout human history. For example, the crib in Flemish painting The Adoration of the Child Jesus (Circa 1515, by a disciple of Jan Joest) may be one of the earliest representations of Down syndrome in Western art.1

An angel and a shepherd depicted in the painting have facial features suggestive of Down syndrome. A few years ago, the first confirmed case of Down’s syndrome was discovered: the skeleton of a child who died in medieval France.2 The way the child was buried, like anyone else buried around this time, suggests that Down’s syndrome was not necessarily stigmatized in the Middle Ages.

Obsolete and offensive

Today, it is seen as misleading and offensive to use “Mongoloid” to refer to people with this disease, although not everyone is aware of it.

In November 2017, nutritionist Libby Weaver apologized and recalled 20,000 copies of her book What am I supposed to eat? following complaints about its use of “mongolism” to refer to Down syndrome. Mongoloid, Mongolian, Mong and Mongy are still used as insults towards people with intellectual disabilities and in general terms of abuse.

In October 2011, English comedian Ricky was criticized when he shared the joke “Two mongs don’t make a right” on Twitter. He refused to apologize and even added a “mong” skit to his comedy routine. Finally, after much public pressure, he backed down. He apologized, admitting that he had offended people by using the term and had not realized that it was still being used as a derogatory term for people with Down syndrome and other disabilities.

When prominent people like Gervais brandish the old diagnosis as an insult, it can have the effect of popularizing the term as an insult, further stigmatizing and marginalizing those involved.

Today, the World Health Organization works to ensure that places and people are not stigmatized when it names new diseases and conditions.

Read about this topic and more in Karen Stollznow’s new book, On the offensive: prejudices in past and present language.

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