What’s in a word?

What’s in a word?

Dr Ellen Marks from One Door Mental Health on the power of healing through change in language.

24 November 2017: Language can aid healing. An enormous amount of attention is given to health literacy as a means of improving people’s health outcomes. We also know that language revitalisation for indigenous populations around the world is one salient means for beginning a recovery journey from historical trauma. 

The positive effects of engaging with language are obvious and well-known. On the other hand, the devastatingly stigmatising effects of incorrect language can also prevent healing.

I recently watched a TED talk by Sally Kohn, who spoke about emotional correctness as an alternative concept to political correctness. This is a concept I quite like. 

Political correctness (PC) is the use of language in a way that intends to avoid offense or disadvantage to members of particular groups in society. It’s not always a popular concept, with many voicing opposition to the increasingly PC use of language which is felt to impinge on an individual’s right to expression. As such, PC is equally used to be a negative concept as it is a positive one. 

Emotional correctness, however, humanises the effects of language. It takes into account that the way we speak about something, whatever it may be, has a human face behind it. An actual person who will feel hurt, angry, happy or proud depending on which way the language is used. 

Here is a good example: the word “schizophrenic”. Currently, schizophrenic is the noun used to describe someone living with schizophrenia or it is be used as an adjective to describe characteristics of schizophrenia. Often the way “schizophrenia” and “schizophrenic” are grossly misused in common language. 

What many people don’t know is that dictionaries record both the correct use and the figurative (often incorrect) use of language. 

Many dictionaries therefore include incorrect colloquial definitions of “schizophrenic”, which often refer to multiple personalities or multiple or contrary points of view. In its correct clinical definition, schizophrenia refers to a serious psychiatric illness. The illness can be characterised by disturbances in thought (such as delusions), perception (such as hallucinations), or behaviour (such as disorganized speech or catatonic behaviour), by a loss of emotional responsiveness and extreme apathy, and by noticeable deterioration in the level of functioning in everyday life. 

This is not the fault of the dictionary. Their job is to reflect how language is used as well as the actual meaning of a word. It is our job to change how people use language so that the dictionary can accurately express a word’s meaning.

One Door has been in contact with many dictionaries, some of whom like the American Heritage Dictionary, Macquarie Dictionary and Wiktionary have included a “usage note” which highlights that the colloquial uses of schizophrenic raise concerns to those who are trying to increase community knowledge of the medical condition of schizophrenia. 

While we would like to change the definitions completely, a “usage note” is a good start to draw attention to the issue. Changing the definition requires that we change the way the whole population uses the word, which we will continue to pursue, but will take time. 

If you find online dictionaries that don’t have a “usage note” notify advocacy@onedoor.org.au. Also, we ask you to think before you speak, there is a real person receiving your messages. 

The power of language is in your hands.

Show your support for the advocacy work we do by donating to our One Door Christmas Appeal. Mental illness does not stop for the holidays. 



Ellen Marks