9 June 2012

How We Use Language Matters

Annorax from "Year of Hell", Star Trek: Voyager

"Sir, you were correct. The Zahl homeworld was the focal point. Its erasure has produced a complete temporal restoration."
"Yes, sir."
"If I told you to count the stars in the cosmos, would the task ever be complete?"
"Our attempts may be sufficient; they may even be relatively successful, but they will never be complete. Choose your words with more precision."
"My apologies."

When my husband and I first started dating, I'd sometimes get irritated at the precision of his language, not because he was precise, but because he expected it of me, too, and impressed upon me the importance of that precision. More and more, I see how very important this is. One area in which this is seen is the breastfeeding debate, as Dispelling Breastfeeding Myths and The Analytical Armadillo show.

Today, though, I was thinking of this in another area. It stuck me today how we speak about those with psychological disorders. We tend to say that someone is schizophrenic, depressed, bipolar, anxious, as if his entire identity was wrapped up in his diagnosis. We do not speak of someone being cancer or heart disease (an exception to this is if a person has diabetes, so this isn't a hard and fast delineation).

I cannot help but wonder, though, if how we speak about psychological disorders doesn't add to or even help create the stigma associated with them. Such things are often spoken of in hushed voices, and seeing a doctor or trying to get some help for, say, anxiety, can be seen as a sign of weakness. Yet we wouldn't dream of telling a person with cancer to just be strong and get over it, and psychological disorders are every bit as real and can be just as insidious.

This post isn't just about how we speak about breastfeeding or illness, but our language in general. Orwell obviously understood this, since in 1984 he notes that language shapes our reality. Our language matters, and is something where precision is warranted.

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