Let’s commit to ending the historical misuse of the term ‘Mongol’ - Uuganaa Ramsay

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?

Uuganaa Ramsay, Founder and Director, 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 Mongol 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.

Mongol Identity is a Scotland-based non-governmental and non-profit organisation committed to ending the historical misuse of the term ‘Mongol’ through education and awareness raising about the dignity, culture and tradition of people of Mongol ethnicity.

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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 exist as a single font of all knowledge. 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 in a definition of Mongol reference to Down’s Syndrome as this is archaic, or to stupidity as this is racist, ablest and offensive?

In the 1800s John Langdon Down attempted to describe the genetic condition and drew on two strands of pseudo-science: ethnic classification and phrenology. 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.

A letter to The Lancet signed by eminent geneticists and physicians in 1961 proposed that the misleading racial connotations, be replaced by ‘Langdon-Down anomaly’ or Down’s Syndrome. Soon, the World Health Organisation dropped the word Mongol as a medical reference to people with Down’s Syndrome in 1965.

Uuganaa Ramsay, Founder and Director, Mongol Identity

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