If you hear someone described as a ‘mongol’, what is your first reaction?
Do you assume that the person is from Mongolia? Or that the speaker is talking in derogatory terms about someone with Down’s syndrome? Or that it’s an insult hurled at someone who has done something stupid?
It was in the mid-1800s when Dr John Langdon Down attempted to describe the genetic condition that now carries his name.
Down drew on two strands of pseudo-science prevalent in Europe at the time: ethnic classification, which attempted to delineate ‘races’ in terms of physical traits; and phrenology, which posited that the shape of a person’s head was an indicator of their character and intelligence.
He published a paper entitled ‘Observations on an Ethnic Classification of Idiots’ in 1866, coining the term ‘Mongolian Idiot’ to describe people born with Down’s syndrome, saying they shared the same facial characteristics of the ‘Mongoloid’, a 19th century racial classification which was applied to people from Mongolia, China and Japan.
The phrase passed into standard medical terminology. And so, the association between Mongol, Down’s syndrome and idiot was born.
By the mid-20th century, it was widely recognised that this term was not only inaccurate but deeply insulting both to people with the genetic condition and to people from Mongolia.
A letter to The Lancet signed by eminent geneticists and physicians in 1961 proposed that the terms Mongolian idiocy, mongolism, and mongoloid, with their misleading racial connotations, be replaced by Langdon-Down anomaly or Down’s syndrome.
Soon, the World Health Organisation published the 8th Revision of International Classification of Diseases in 1965. The word mongol as a medical reference to people with Down’s syndrome was dropped.
‘By the mid-20th century, it was widely recognised that this term was not only inaccurate but deeply insulting both to people with the genetic condition and to people from Mongolia.’Uuganaa Ramsay, founder of Mongol Identity
In October 2020, Formula 1 driver Max Verstappen caused uproar when he called a rival a ‘mongol’.
The social media response which followed showed that many had no idea why this use of the word was offensive and saw it merely as interchangeable for ‘idiot’.
There was little recognition that using the term as an insult is both deeply racist and discriminatory.
I am the founder of Mongol Identity, a UK-based non-governmental and non-profit organisation committed to ending the historical misuse of the term through education and awareness raising about the dignity, culture and tradition of people of Mongolian ethnicity.
Approaching the issue through education is critical.
People are often shocked when we explain the origin of the links between Mongol, Down’s syndrome and idiocy. They understand that it is derogatory to use mongol as an insult but they don’t know why.
Importantly, young people learn from what they hear, read and watch and our view is that the source needs to be addressed.
Mongol Identity identifies one key source of this lack of understanding: dictionaries. When Max Verstappen made his comments, we found a lot of people on social media were saying ‘Mongol is in the dictionary and it means someone who is stupid or someone who has Down’s syndrome.
However, it’s important to recognise that ‘the dictionary’ doesn’t really exist as a single font of all knowledge.
People are often shocked when we explain the origin of the links between Mongol, Down’s syndrome and idiocy.Uuganaa Ramsay, founder of Mongol Identity
Dictionary content and definitions depend on the different compilers and publishers who create them. We see that dictionaries, even if they put a label saying ‘offensive’ on a definition, don’t provide enough information for people to make an informed choice about if or how they use the term.
This is particularly true if they are dictionaries designed for learners in an age when we are all much more aware of racist and discriminatory language.
Mongol Identity aims to work with dictionary publishers to ensure that the definitions provided are clear and complete.
We want publishers to consider what they put in their definitions.
For example, if a dictionary is for language learners, is it really necessary to include a definition of mongol referencing Down’s syndrome as this is archaic?
If it is seen as necessary, we need to make sure that the definitions provide enough information to ensure the dictionary users understand just how offensive, discriminatory and racist these uses are.
In response to our letter, the Oxford University Press said: “All of our dictionaries are driven by evidence of how language is used in daily life, taken from a vast range of real life sources.
“Having reviewed the evidence for the words ‘mongol’, ‘mongoloid’, and ‘mongolism’, we have decided to remove the terms from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary.
The entry for Mongol – with a capital M – will however remain online and within the print edition, where it appears in the appendix of geographical names in reference to people of Mongol origin and the culture.
We can use the word Mongol in its original and authentic meaning, so that we can all exercise our human rights that are equal in dignity.
For more about this campaign, and about our work to promote understanding of Mongolian culture and our campaigning work in the area of human rights, visit mongolidentity.org.
Uuganaa Ramsay is the founder and director of Mongol Identity. She is an award-winning author, campaigner and advocate. Born in Mongolia and now living in Scotland, she started writing and campaigning in 2010 after the death of her son, Billy, who had Down’s syndrome. Uuganaa won the Scottish Asian Women’s Award for Achievement Against All Odds in 2014. Her memoir Mongol won the Janetta Bowie Chalice Non-Fiction Book Award from the Scottish Association of Writers and following Mongol’s publication, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service produced a documentary, The Meaning of Mongol.
Follow Uuganaa on Twitter.
Pass the Mic
Pass the Mic works with women of colour who are experts in their field – educators, academics, researchers, campaigners, policy-makers, community activists, writers, workers, carers and many more.
It aims to make a tangible change across media in Scotland by increasing the representation of women of colour who participate in it, and by improving how women of colour and the issues that impact them are talked about.
For more information on Pass the Mic, click here.