Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Dr Crippen: Why we have to watch our language

An article published in today's edition of The Guardian:
Human beings should not be defined by their illness

My wife and I helped our children learn to read with the help of Biff, Chip, Kipper and friends who starred in the Oxford Reading Tree books. We could not help but smile at how racially correct the books were, with people of all colours and creeds. And quite right too. The children, of course, took the ethnic origins of the characters for granted. Again, quite right too.

We smiled because we thought back to the books we were brought up with. Little Black Sambo; Noddy always being chased by golliwogs and so on. We also took it all for granted but it was not quite right. It was not right at all; engrained stereotypes, the thoughtless use of words and pictures with their subtle, insidious undertones.

It still happens, particularly in medicine, where the thoughtless use of words may indicate an underlying iceberg of prejudice and misunderstanding. I was taken to task a few days ago by a psychiatrist colleague for using the word "schizophrenic" as a noun.

"It is not a noun, and schizophrenics are people," he said. Technically the psychiatrist is wrong. Like "diabetic" and "asthmatic", schizophrenic was always meant to be an adjective, but common usage has made it a noun.

Technical point scored, perhaps, but the issue is more profound than grammatical pedantry. The psychiatrist meant that a fellow human being should not be defined by an illness. It's not right to talk about "diabetics" and "asthmatics" either but doing so does not seem to cause as much offence. And as a doctor I can't keep writing "patients with diabetes" all the time. I need one word.

But mental illness carries a stigma and schizophrenia is the saddest of illnesses, bringing with it separation from society, social and intellectual decay and, worst of all, loneliness. Human beings with schizophrenia are human beings with schizophrenia. They should not be defined by their illness.

It would never happen in Biff and Chip's world. And quite right too.

Dr Crippen is a pseudonym for a long-serving GP.

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