A Question of Semantics - Our Favorite Dwarf Planet
Slightly behind the news cycle, this week's New York Times On Language essay by William Safire recapped the revocation of Pluto's planetary status because of its irregularity.
Pluto is now officially downgraded to a new category called dwarf planet, and all textbooks in all languages are ordered to refer to it with that adjectival derogation....The interest of language mavens in this astronomical rejiggering is the connotation of the words dwarf.... Dwarf, as both noun and adjective, means “shorter than the average for the species,” sometimes “malformed or disproportionate.” Because of cruel folklore portraying those affected by dwarfism as ugly Rumpelstiltskins, many with that genetic abnormality prefer to be called “little people” or “of short stature.” Midget, though well proportioned, is used to describe objects like tiny cars and submarines, and many little people take offense when the word is applied to them.While he is certainly at least slightly tongue in cheek about the whole thing, Safire is nevertheless one of the few (maybe only?) well known writers that is actually taking notice of the incorrect and disparaging use of these terms in the public arena.
For a nation that is almost squeamishly politically correct on certain topics in both language and concept, America (and, mostly everywhere else too) remains quite blissfully ignorant of the problems of heightism and sizism. Writers don't question the inclusion of size (or lack thereof) as a point of either unflattering or irrelevant discussion.
Under the new rules, a planet must meet three criteria: it must orbit the Sun, it must be big enough for gravity to squash it into a round ball, and it must have cleared other things out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. The last of these criteria knocks out Pluto and Xena, which orbit among the icy wrecks of the Kuiper Belt, and Ceres, which is in the asteroid belt. Dwarf planets, on the other hand, need only orbit the Sun and be round. (emphasis added)Taken from the NY Times again, the quote above neatly points out a not insignificant problem with the literal designation of a planet as a 'dwarf'. From this definition, it is clear as day that Pluto's problem isn't really size at all, but an entirely different requirement. Could it be that usage of the term 'dwarf' stems from a more insidious figurative implication?
Perhaps it comes from the assumption that the smallest humans are not supposed to have the force of will to forge ahead and clear out our own earthly paths. We need only gravitate towards, or just plain avoid, our larger and superior neighbors for survival. Our astronomers have seen fit to let us know that 'dwarf' refers not to a smaller body, but really, to a weaker spirit.