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The Power of Words

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

[Republished from my old website and blog. Originally posted in 2013]

As an editor, words are my livelihood so it frustrates me when people don't realise the power that they have. 

I've been pondering on the subject dealt with in this blog for a long time, ever since seeing Tim Minchin at the Hay Festival where he spoke about the power of words. He highlighted that it's not, in fact, a massive problem if children hear swear words. Much more dangerous is when they hear words (and I'll use his example) such as 'homosexuality' and 'sin' in the same sentence. As he said, a danger to the tune of 30,000 suicides a year. I’m hoping the statistic I’ve given here is right, but to be honest the number isn’t important. If language we use is affecting the lives of other people, we need to do something to change or challenge it.

This might come across as quite an extreme example, but what about the day-to-day language that we use? What affect can that have on beliefs, views and stereotypes? Some of the language that is used wrongly is obvious. 'Gay' is often used to denote something bad, negative or inferior and this has a massive impact on underlying perceptions of being gay is something other than normal, something different. Terms such as ‘spastic’ and ‘spazzing out’ are thankfully falling out of use (although can still be heard occasionally) and there is a campaign to stop the use of the word ‘retard’.

Much more ingrained in our language and culture are negative mental health terms. They are in daily use, in the media, and in the books we read. An article on the BBC website recently got me thinking about the words we use as metaphors. The article referred to the casual use of words such as OCD and bipolar to describe personality traits rather than specific conditions. There were two arguments, the first being that using terms in this way contributes to misunderstanding of mental health issues, and trivialises them. On the other hand, it does bring them out in to the open.

Once you start looking, or listening out for them, misused ‘diagnoses’ are everywhere. Someone went ‘schizo’ when they were angry, keeping things in order is described as ‘OCD’ and ‘mental’ and ‘crazy’ are used to describe anything from a busy day at work to a big night out. In books I’ve noticed the same trend. Something is described as ‘like a madman’, somewhere as being ‘like a madhouse’ or someone as behaving like a ‘lunatic’. This casual use perpetuates stereotypes, for example, that someone with a mental health problem is dangerous and/or scary.

We need to challenge the normalisation of terms related to mental health. Fortunately the days of people being locked up in ‘lunatic asylums’ are long gone, but images still remain with phrases such as ‘like a loon’, ‘nutcase’, ‘deranged’ and ‘demented’. Think about it, when you use these terms in your everyday speech, what are you actually saying? Mental health is a hugely complex area and needs to be treated as such, and it’s more common than you might think. One in four people will experience a mental health problem at some point in their lives. It needs to be brought out in the open and discussed, but in a positive way, not a negative one.

So, next time you’re about to use a casual mental health reference, think again. Here are some helpful suggestions from ‘Time to Change’ a campaign to get people talking positively about mental health.

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