My friend Laurel asked for a blog on a throwaway Facebook post I wrote this past week. Much obliged for the idea.
Warning: nuance abounds in these waters.
The words we use have meaning, both to us and to those who hear them. We can not be responsible for how clearly our messages are received, only for how clearly we send them.
Now, I'm not generally a fan of euphemism. I believe in calling things what they are, and preferably in not obscuring them in reams of polysyllabic bafflegab.
The immortal George Carlin traces the (d)evolution of "shell shock". That was the term in World War One that later generations knew as "battle fatigue" (WWII); "operational exhaustion" (Korea), and "post-traumatic stress disorder" (since Vietnam). What sounds more painful, more human, to you? "Shell shock"? Or "post-traumatic stress disorder"? Granted, you get PTSD from events besides warfare, but still. Can we agree that maybe, just maybe, we could coin a phrase that captures the agony of that condition and that isn't eight syllables (plus a hyphen!) long?
But Carlin's wrong sometimes, too, and that's when he offers up "crippled" for the same treatment. He suggests there's nothing whatsoever wrong with the word "crippled", that any mollifying phrase to mask it detracts from the fundamental reality: the person is crippled.
Sorry, George. I love ya, man, you've done more than most to shape my thinking, but here you're not just dead, you're dead wrong. When you refer to a human being as a cripple, you do the very thing Carlin laments with "operational exhaustion": you strip that person of her humanity by referencing only their condition. That's why we're encouraged to say things like 'person living with hearing loss' rather than 'deaf person'...and I, for one, would rather place that person's personhood ahead of their condition. I'd rather minimize that condition, too, by saying the person is living with the condition, and if that takes me an extra half a second, I think I can spare the time.
Better yet, call the person living with hearing loss "Mike" or "Angie". Unless their condition figures somehow in what you have to say about them, is it really necessary to bring it up? Probably not, but people can't seem to help themselves, can they? No matter the handicap, people are not and should not be defined by it outside of a medical setting, as far as I am concerned.
When the illness is mental, though, there's this curious opposite effect at play. The word for the condition is everywhere. I'm depressed that my team lost. (No: you're sad.) I'm anxious because I don't think I've studied enough. (No: you're nervous.) I could just kill myself! (Are you REALLY suicidal?) (Hat tip to Barbara for these examples: I'm sure you can think of others.)
When everybody's "depressed" every now and again, actual people suffering through actual depression are minimized. Ditto any other mental illness. It's odd, in a way, because if you insist that yes, god damn it, you have generalized anxiety disorder, the same people who say they're "anxious" over every least thing will stigmatize you. See what's happening here? They're stealing your word and minimizing it to describe their own trifling-by-comparison condition, and then trifling you for having the condition they appropriated.
Arguably the most glaring example of this is OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). There are actually tests on Facebook asking "how OCD are you?" Get a load of the grammar on that: "how obsessive-compulsive disorder are you?")
These tests invariably assess how detail oriented you are. Being detail oriented is not OCD, in the same way that sad is not depressed and off-white is not dead black. Do you know what OCD is? It's washing your hands until they bleed, still convinced they're not clean enough. It's being completely unable to function unless a routine is followed in exacting and minute detail. It's absolutely having to (that's the "compulsion") do everything in sets of three, or seven, or eleven. Unless you are living with something along this line, you do not have OCD. So don't pretend you do, okay?