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Southeast Asia, explained

Philippines: who you calling "Mongoloid"?

A firebrand Philippine senator in etymological hot water
Philippines miriam santiago 2012 03 07Enlarge
Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a senator and veteran lawmaker in the Philippines. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

"Stop molesting me, you Mongoloids!"

That zinger has forced an apology from a firebrand Philippine senator better known for standing her ground than conceding mistakes. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, whose own bio calls her a "dragon lady," was slamming critics who've urge her to leave the senate, according to the Manila-based Inquirer.

The problem is not so much the molestation but the use of "Mongoloid." Her quip has attracted a new cast of detractors: the Down Syndrome Association of the Philippines.The Philippines' GMA News and other outlets have reported that the association is castigating Miriam for using "insensitive" language.

Just what is a Mongoloid anyway?

The word derives from "Mongols," the ethnic group that conquered vast stretches of Asia during the 13th century. "Mongoloid" was coined by 19th-century European anthropologists who, in a worldview that now seems crude and outdated, used the term to describe every native ethnic group from Mongolia down to Southeast Asia.

The term took a nasty etymological turn in the 1800s when it was used to describe people with Down's Syndrome. Why? Because British doctor John Langdon Down likened the skin folds common in the eyes of those with Down's Syndrome to the folds common in the eyes of North Asians. (Surprise: English guys born in 1828 were not terribly sensitive.)

Unfortunately, the word is also shorthand for "idiot." Despite her rhetorical gifts, Miriam probably did not have the full, foul baggage of "Mongoloid" in mind when she used the word to trash her political enemies.

That's why she apologized.

In apologizing, Miriam at least managed to show off her excellent taste in books. She told ABS-CBN News that she lifted the casual use of "Mongoloid" from the slovenly, self-aggrandizing lead character Ignatius J. Reilly in the cult classic "Confederacy of Dunces," which earned its author a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Though brilliantly composed, Ignatius is probably not the best person to quote on the Philippine senate floor.

http://www.globalpost.com/globalpost-blogs/southeast-asia/miriam-mongoloid-philippines