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.
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,