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Could we use mongoloid with reference to Down's syndrome in informal English?

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If the answer is an emphatic "no, that's offensive", I think its better to leave the question open with a (high-rated) answer to that effect than to just close the question. –  T.E.D. May 10 '12 at 14:28

6 Answers 6

up vote 9 down vote accepted

No, don't use use mongoloid to refer to Down's syndrome in any form of English, it's offensive.

The Downs Syndrome Association advise the media of What To Say / Not Say, including:

Don't Say: Mongol
Do Say: person/baby/child with Down's syndrome

Down's Syndrome Scotland recently issued a statement, this is much more relevant to informal English, and I'll quote it in full:

Statement regarding Ricky Gervais' use of "Mong" on Twitter

(24 October 2011) Last week Ricky Gervais, a well known comedian as well as writer and actor in The Office, tweeted his followers using “Good monging” and “Goodnight twongols”. Since these tweets and others last week appeared, the media and Twitter followers have been voicing their various viewpoints.

Ricky Gervais defends his use of the word, saying that the word has changed its meaning.He tweeted:“Just to clarify for uptight people stuck in the past. The word Mong means Down’s syndrome about as much as the word Gay means happy. i.e. I never use the word Mong to mean anything to do with Down’s syndrome.”

However, the comedian continued to post photos similar to this one. The tweet above reads: “Goodnight tweetmonglers…This face is for you guys….” These photos do little to prove that the meaning has changed from a derogatory term used to refer to people with Down’s syndrome who have some form of learning disability.

Where did “mong” come from?

The word “mong” derives from the word “mongol” and “mongoloid”. Dr. John Langdon Down, who discovered Down’s syndrome in the 1860s, used “mongolism” and “mongoloid” to describe the syndrome as he stated that there were similar physical characteristics of people with Down’s syndrome to people from Mongolia and Mongoloid race (those of Asian ethnicity). This phrase was used until the 1960s, when scientists petitioned to use “Down’s syndrome” instead of “Mongolism” or “Mongoloid” as they were embarrassing terms for Chinese and Japanese scientists and academics to use this word to refer to the syndrome.

Mongolia delegates from the World Health Organisation later requested that the use of “mongolism” and “mongol” be dropped from WHO publications.

Why is “mong” such an issue?

Today, the word “mong” is used quite frequently. However, have you ever heard it used in a positive way? Have you used it to mean “idiot”, “slow” or “stupid”? These words have been used throughout history and today to refer to people with learning disabilities and people with Down’s syndrome. Has the word really changed?

We have seen words like the “N word”, which referred to black slaves in America change its meaning as some black people have taken back the word and refer to their black friends as “nigga”. However, this word is generally not used by white people as there is a respect and understanding that the origins of the word represent oppression to black people.

People with learning disabilities cannot reclaim the word “mong”. People with learning disabilities are often left out of society. Due to disproportionate cuts to their services, it's harder to secure jobs and college places leaving people with learning disabilities stuck at home.

We know many people with Down’s syndrome face abuse on the street every day including having the word “mong” shouted at them. When Ricky Gervais or others with similar prominence use this word, people hear it and think it’s alright to use this word how they see fit. Words hit hard and punch you whether you’re up or down.

Not only is the word offensive to people with Down’s syndrome but it is also offensive to Mongolians. If you were a Mongol, how would you like to hear your nationality used as a word that meant “slow”, “stupid” or “idiot”? In an age where people are seeing the consequences bullying has on its victims, why would you promote a negative word with negative pictures? This word is not only harmful to people with Down’s syndrome but to Mongolians.

We encourage Ricky Gervais to speak to his local Down’s syndrome organisation or phone us on 0131 313 4225 for more information. We are happy to put him in contact with people with Down’s syndrome who can explain what the word “mong” means to them. While you may not have known that “mong” refers to Down’s syndrome, will you stop using it now that you know? We hope to erase ignorance over the potency of this word. By educating others on the harm this word does, we hope you and others choose not to use it in the future. By doing so, you are supporting a group in society that is often disregarded.

Read more about disablist language from Richard Herring.

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In the UK cerebral palsy sufferers were originally called spastics and the "Spastic society" was a charity to help sufferers. But for at least 40years kids have called other kids "spastic" or "spaz" and so the society changed it's name to "Scope". Within days kids that were useless at sport were being called "scopey" - language adapts, offensive language adapts fastest. –  mgb May 10 '12 at 18:29
    
Personally, I can understand Mongolians being annoyed that the name of their ethnic group is used a sort of synonym for mental retardation. But for Downs sufferers or their friends to object to it being used as a slag term for them on the grounds that it carries negative connotations, and insisting that some alternate term be used? Good luck with that. If you succeeded tomorrow in having the official name changed, I'm sure whatever word you came up with would quickly be found to be equally offensive. Note how we have to constantly find new names for black people as each succeeding term ... –  Jay May 10 '12 at 19:20
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is declared racist: negro, colored, black, now we're on African-American, I'm sure in another decade or two that will be declared offensive and we'll have a new term. My sister had Downs syndrome back when it was called mongolism. To this day we refer to her as having been "mongoloid". I have never found the term offensive. –  Jay May 10 '12 at 19:22
    
So Gervais' defence is "I'm not ableist and racist, I'm ableist, racist and homophobic"? Well, he's managed to tick the one remaining way I didn't think he was an asshole off the list. –  Jon Hanna Feb 9 at 23:14
    
Unfortunately, in Italy, I've been hearing with increasing frequency the word Down as a way to insult someone's lack of intelligence. The "victim" is never a person who actually has the syndrome (at least I've never witnessed this), but it is definitely used as a pejorative word. –  Mari-Lou A Feb 9 at 23:34

Wiktionary refers to such usage as dated or offensive:

(dated) Someone with Down syndrome.
(offensive) Idiot, retard – general term of abuse, due to association with Down syndrome.

I would say no, don't use the term, in informal English or elsewhere, for such reference.

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NOAD and M-W confirm that it is usually/often offensive. –  zpletan May 9 '12 at 21:54
    
@zpletan: Choosing the sense (given in Oxforddictionaries) 'causing someone to feel resentful' for offensive, you can delete the 'usually/often'. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 29 '13 at 9:04

In what context are you referring to someone with Down syndrome? When referring to a person you use the pronouns him/her, he/she, they, etc. When you are referring to the fact that the person has Down syndrome you would say "Tom has Down syndrome" or "Tom has Trisomy 21".

Calling someone or referring to them as a mongoloid is dated and offensive (similar to calling an African American person a negro.)

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If you break down the word "Mongoliod", it is "Mongol"-which refers the main ethnic group in Mongolia (By the way I am a Mongol myself) and second part "-oid" which means resembling. So the actual word becomes "resembling a Mongol person". And if you refer this word to people with down syndrome, that is politically, racially, and physically very offensive to Mongolians.

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can you explain how it is physically offensive? Seems the adverbs could all be dropped without a loss of meaning there. Moreover, it could also be offensive with respect to people with Down's syndrome –  virmaior Feb 10 at 0:56

I don't believe it should be used in reference to someone with Down's Syndrome. I know it was accepted at one time, but language changes. Devo used as the theme of a song, but I believe they were trying to say that words are just words and people should not put so much emotion into them. In the song, the person has a job and a family and sees the world through clearer eyes than the rest of us. The song had more clout using that word, but in ordinary social situations it a place where you should not verbally go.

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Could you provide the exact title of the song, please? –  Mari-Lou A Nov 26 '13 at 20:01
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@Mari-Lou A - It's called "Mongoloid", released in 1977. Track 5 off their first album. I think it was Devo's first single. –  long Nov 26 '13 at 23:16

The following cases would make it sensible to use that term that way:

  1. You're living in the late 19th or early 20th century.

  2. You hate people with Downs Syndrome.

  3. You're racist.

  4. You hate people with Downs Syndrome and you're racist.

If any of the above are true, it would make perfect sense to use that word in that sense. In the case of writing fictional character's speech, take care that people don't confuse their speech with yours.

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