Word choices and stigma

      5 Comments on Word choices and stigma

So, I have had a bad habit of using derogatory terms for mental illness to describe people or actions that I find irrational, unpleasant or just odd. I have tried, in recent years, to stop that—I’ve mostly managed, I think, to at least cut down on the frequency with which I use the bonkersinsanemadloonymentalnutterwackoderangedpsycho kind of terms, and a quick search seems to indicate that my recent uses of nuts on this Tohu Bohu have been in reference to either foodstuffs or testicles. I haven’t done as well with the word crazy itself—I say fairly often that the most powerful human motivation is not greed or fear or lust but force of habit. At any rate, I’m working on it.

I should say, before I get deeper in to the weeds, that I am not making this attempt to change my speech habits to avoid offending someone, or out of a fear that some sensitive person will get angry at my sloppy speech. I genuinely believe that the stigma around mental health is atrocious and harmful, and that one way in which that stigma is perpetuated is through the use of derogatory terms of this kind, and I don’t want to do that anymore. And there are plenty of other words to use, so I don’t feel in any way put upon when I decide to use some of the other ones. I would prefer to choose words that don’t inadvertently hurt people, either at the moment of hearing (or reading) them or through reinforcing harmful patterns of the readers (or hearer’s) own speech and thought that they will find difficult to break later on, should they so choose. Which I do hope will happen, eventually.

Anyway.

The reason I am bothering telling you so is that I find myself, on occasion, wondering which words I should avoid when they creep into my language. Some are obvious to me, some are more questionable. As an example, let’s say that I would never even consider saying that the British Government’s Brexit plan was retarded, but would probably not stumble over calling it moronic or imbecilic. And yet both moron and imbecile were at one time medical (or pseudo-medical) terms for people with particular kinds of mental conditions. Have they strayed far enough from that use that they can be used to indicate wrongheaded folly? For that matter, what about folly and fool? Cretin? Rage? Cranky and crank probably come from a word for illness. Also frenzy and fury.

Now, there’s clearly a distinction between describing someone as cuckoo or furious, in terms of contributing to the stigma attached to mental illness. I am not planning to stop using all the words that were once derived from or used for slurs. Since I began writing this note, I’ve had a conversation where I used the phrase dance craze without thinking about it—when I do think about it, then obviously the phrase exists because of a terrible and inaccurate stereotype of people with mental illness. As indeed does the phrase screwball comedy, and replacing it with zany or madcap isn’t much better. I don’t expect or even want the language to be purified, and of course it wouldn’t matter much if I did.

So, what’s my point? Insofar as I have a point, it’s just that our language reflects how deeply an incorrect and harmful stereotype of mental illness is embedded in our society. Changing that will be a struggle, as individuals and across the culture. And also that being mindful of what words and metaphors I use is not a simple and uncomplicated thing.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

5 thoughts on “Word choices and stigma

  1. irilyth

    I struggle with this too, and am not very good about it. :^(

    For me, I think the problem is that most of these words have nothing to do with mental illness: When I describe something as bonkers or crazy, I don’t mean “it is as if the people who did this thing had a diagnosable mental illness”, I mean something approximately like “inexplicably unreasonable”. And I suppose I could practice saying “inexplicably unreasonable” every time my instinct is to say “Ansible’s handling of errors is completely crazy”, but it feels awkward and weird. I haven’t had as much trouble eliminating others of these sorts of things, which I guess, as you say speaks to how deeply entrenched this one is.

    And I guess the “for me this has nothing to do with the meaning/history of the words” excuse is no better than the “when I call someone ‘gay’ as an insult, I’m not even remotely talking about their sexuality, I just mean it as a general insult”, which is no good at all.

    Meh. What are your favorite / least awkward alternatives to the casual “crazy”, particularly in that “inexplicably unreasonable” context, which is the one I find myself bumping into the most?

    Reply
    1. Jacob

      Absurd, senseless, wrongheaded, perverse, irrational, cockamamy, goofy, bizarre. Personally, I would like to see more use of “cockamamy”.

      Question for our Humble Blogger — does “meshugge” fall into the category of historically deriving from derogatory terms for mental illness?

      Reply
      1. Vardibidian Post author

        Alas, yes, meshugga is a direct reference to “madness”, vadevvah dat means. Absolutely a slur, in my opinion, closer to mental than daft.

        Thanks,
        -V.

        Reply
    2. Vardibidian Post author

      The excuse that the current meaning is divorced from its derivation is legit when the current meaning is, indeed, divorced from its derivation—if I say someone is furious, I do not in fact mean that they are possessed by the furies and nobody thinks I do, so we’re all good there. But if I say someone is nuts, while I may not mean it as a slur, it still is one. It’s not a clear distinction, and there are lots and lots of edge cases, but there are also a bunch of cases that aren’t actually edge cases at all.

      I have tried to use bizarre for “inexplicably unreasonable”, but it doesn’t quite hit the connotation. The OED suggests zonky and ostrobogulous, although the latter has a clear connotation of filth rather than simple inexplicability. Perhaps skimble-skamble has a better sense of confusion and disorder. I think it may be better to string two or three words together to get the kind of connotation you’re looking for, as something like “Ansible’s handling of errors is bizarrely, randomly zonky” or “Ansible’s handling of errors is a total goat rodeo” or “Ansible’s handling of errors is a complete fucking tohu-bohu”.

      One of the phrases that I find myself using a lot is drive me crazy, and I’ve tried to replace it with gets up my nose, but it doesn’t seem to take. Ah, well.

      Thanks,
      -V.

      Reply
  2. Vardibidian Post author

    I’ll note that evidently neither silly nor daft nor goofy are derived from illness-related roots, although silly has (or acquired) a connotation of physical as well as mental weakness that one may or may not find objectionable.

    Thanks,
    -V.

    Reply

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