Vertically Challenged: The Phrase No One Needs


Michelle So, Staff Writer

Throughout my life, I have been quite content with being called “short”. I cruised along in the 25th percentile for height for years and years and now stand at a slightly unsatisfactory and unchangeable 5 feet 2½ inches. The average female American stands at 5 feet 4 inches, and though it may not seem like much, those 1 ½ inches account for subtle differences in daily life.

 My stature has provided me with both annoying consequences and advantages. Buying long pants and long dresses is a hassle when society idolizes elongated legs. Trying to see through a crowd is a nightmare–people over 5 feet 6 inches should not be allowed to wear heels! And then there’s also the everlasting topic of height that seeps into conversation. Though I partake in these casual comparisons of height, the topic has been squeezed and wrung out more than necessary. It’s in these discussions of “I wish I could be taller” that the term “vertically challenged” comes into play.

Senior Krystal Dang is 5 feet tall and a self-proclaimed “short person”.

“I think vertically challenged, as a word, has a sarcastic connotation. People use it as a way to be sarcastic about [their height],” said Dang.

In nearly all online definitions, the phrase is recognized as humorous and of joking origin. In that definition, then I suppose it has an acceptable use. But seriously, the entire usage and origin of the phrase is ironic. Why come up with a longer word to describe someone small?

Well, a quick search on answered this question. Of the synonyms listed for the word “short”, the most humbling included squatty, undersized, and pocket-sized. Alright, maybe the term “vertically challenged” isn’t as bad as it seems.The debate then becomes: is it appropriate to use the phrase vertically challenged? And when so?

I should mention that while I do consider myself to be an un-tall person, I am by no means the best person to judge this topic.  For people with medically recognized dwarfism, helping people find the correct words is a struggle. While I do question the use of the words vertically challenged, I do not feel personal offense from its use. Just to better explain the context of the terms I am about to use, the word “dwarf” refers to someone below 4 feet 10 inches and is considered politically correct in literature or medical settings, but should not be used unless it is the label that one prefers. However, most people with recognized dwarfism refer to themselves as “little people”, which is the standard and acceptable term.

According to the Diversity Style Guide, remarks that include “midget” or “vertically challenged” are highly offensive and outdated, reminiscent of “the height of the ‘freak show’ era” when people with dwarfism were displayed for public amusement.

But for those of us that are short but not afflicted with dwarfism, the vertically challenged still has a “use it as you please” sort of definition. It feels more proper, almost official, to use the word in a politically correct sense, yet it can still be taken negatively by others who wish to use other words instead. Of course, no one really has the possible offenses in mind when carelessly throwing this term around with a group of friends. But perhaps it is best that we stave off the casual use of the “vc word”.


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