'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.' - Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass
As Lewis Carroll wryly noted, words require a shared meaning rather than an idiosyncratic meaning chosen by the speaker. Wittgenstein argued that definitions of words emerge from what he termed ‘forms of life’, roughly the culture and society in which they are used, although he might have observed that this emergence is a process; sometimes words have different resonances and meanings to different generations or groups within a broader culture. A recent example of this unfixed meaning of words was evident in the use of the word ‘mong’ by the comedian Ricky Gervais on twitter, which caused a polarised response in some media.
In popular, current usage, the word ‘mong’ refers to a state of being messed up, and ‘monged’ was often used as an equivalent term in the north West of the UK for being ‘stoned’ on cannabis. However, the word ‘mong’ derives from the term ‘Mongolism’ or, more accurately ‘Mongolian Idiocy’ used (formally) to describe people with Down’s syndrome up until 1961, and formally dropped by the World Health Organisation in 1965.
Having grown up with an older sister who, since the early 1960’s has been formally described and diagnosed as ‘mentally handicapped’, ‘autistic’ and ‘learning disabled’, I frequently had to endure my peers and strangers calling her ‘mongy’, ‘spaz’ or ‘retard’, or our family being stared at when my sister made some unusual (to others) gestures and movements when she was feeling happy. It was not pleasant, and was sometimes quite distressing, especially when I was very young.
Gervais’ casual use of the word ‘mong’ suggests that, in popular culture, language that is derogatory to people with learning disabilities is more acceptable (or can be used with less sensitivity) than words that are derogatory about race, or other differences. Black people can protest about (or even appropriate) the offensive word ‘nigger’, Asians can do likewise with the offensive term ‘Paki'. People with learning disabilities cannot protest as easily; in a sense they are more vulnerable, and make easier targets for bullies but we all have a responsibility to challenge derogatory and hate language, no matter who the target.
Gervais and his sidekick Stephen Merchant previously insulted the actress Victoria Wright who has cherubism, and they seem happy to push the limits of post modern, ironic comedy to teeter on the edge of being bullies rather than funny. Which is a shame. Whilst Gervais may not have meant to cause offence by using the term 'mong', how he positions his comedy in relation to disability and derogatory language in the future will be the acid test.