Precision of language

I recently reread The Giver by Lois Lowry, a young adult dystopian sci-fi novel written long before such things were cool. For those of you who haven’t read it, and without giving too much away, it’s the story of a boy growing up in an extremely controlled environment, so controlled that people’s families and professions are chosen for them and their emotions suppressed. I cannot recommend this book enough, and I cannot recommend avoiding the movie version enough. Seriously, it’s awful. Just take my word for it.

One of the themes of the book deals with how this society governs the way its citizens communicate. There’s this concept of “precision of language”, the idea that you should use the words that you actually mean, without embellishment (e.g. use “hungry” instead of “starving”). Hyperbole does not exist in this society. As the main character, Jonas, discovers the hidden costs this society imposes, he also begins to see how restrictive this centrally-imposed “precision” is.

“Do you love me?”

There was an awkward silence for a moment. Then Father gave a little chuckle. “Jonas. You, of all people. Precision of language, please!”

“What do you mean?” Jonas asked. Amusement was not at all what he had anticipated.

“Your father means that you used a very generalized word, so meaningless that it has become almost obsolete,” his mother explained carefully.

Jonas stared at them. Meaningless? He had never before felt anything as meaningful as the memory. (Chapter 16, pp.59-60)

Passages like this got me thinking. Dystopias aside, sometimes I think that the language we use to discuss mental illness could use some precision. The terms we use can be interpreted in so many ways, as I noted in my first post; they’re what I like to call squishy.

Probably the obvious terms that fall into this category are things like “crazy”, “losing your mind”, “psycho”, and “insane”. This 2012 article from The Guardian discusses use of these terms quite well. It seems like, while these terms may have started as descriptions of mental states, they’ve gained much more informal use to denote that something’s ill-advised, random, or strange (see the Dictionary.com entry for “crazy”). You can see this common use of these terms all over the music world.

I’m guilty of using these terms myself, in the informal sense. I refer to things as being “crazy” or that I’m “losing my mind” in the flippant senses of the terms. The issue, as The Guardian article discusses, is using these terms to refer to people. When used in reference to people, these terms often are pejorative (e.g. “That guy is psycho”.). Mildly pejorative, sure, but pejorative nonetheless.

These terms can be particularly hurtful if used against someone with an actual mental illness, as there’s a good chance one may not even know that the person they just called “insane” has such an illness. Perhaps as a vestige of my undergraduate degree in philosophy, and despite my dark passenger, I have a fairly thick skin in regards to taking offense. However, a lot of my fellow dysthymics have highly sensitive personalities, and I’d imagine that’s the case with people who have other mental illnesses as well. You could unknowingly hurt someone in a particularly painful way by calling them “insane” or “crazy” pejoratively; those people likely already feel deep shame for having a mental illness, and, in a sick cycle, the mental illness itself encourages that shame.

I admit that I’m still pretty bad about using these terms frequently, and occasionally even pejoratively. I’m weak, and it takes time to retrain myself. There is one word, however, that I only use in very specific circumstances: “depressed”. When I was diagnosed with dysthymia, it made me hyper-aware of how people use the term “depressed”. It occasionally gets used flippantly (e.g. “I got really depressed when the University of Oregon lost that game”.), but more often I hear it used by “normal” people to mean that they’re feeling really sad or experienced something sad. “Man, I’m feeling really depressed today”. “The events in Nigeria are really depressing”. “I’m in such a funk; I’m feeling so depressed”. Anyway, you get the point. These statements can be brought on by truly terrible circumstances: grievous injuries, deaths, and other atrocities, to name a few.

Not to belittle other people’s sadness (and keeping in mind that I’m emotionally stunted), there is nothing quite like the intense sadness that you feel when in the throes of major depression. It’s a existential crisis, a crippling weight that your mind cannot unload. This truly terrible and terrifying state has many awful aspects, but it’s made worse by the fact that you don’t understand. You don’t understand why it’s happening to you. You don’t understand what you did to deserve it. You don’t understand how you can rid yourself of it. You don’t even understand how you’re going to make it through another minute, let alone another hour, day, or week. You cannot envision a future for yourself. All hope is lost.

So I don’t use the term “depressed” lightly. If I say I’m depressed, my state of mind is an incredibly awful one. This does not mean that I begrudge others use of the term. Instead, I think that being within the depths of psychiatric depression deserves a new term. I looked through a thesaurus to see if there was any word that comes even close to describing the feeling. “Despair”, “dejection”, and “despondence” get somewhat close, but even they’re insufficient. Perhaps there is a word in another language that truly captures the depths of despair and hopelessness endemic of depression, but I suspect not. Coining new names or words is not a skill I posses, so I won’t punish you by trying. But, alas, until such a word enters the lexicon, I’m afraid that the language of depression will continue to lack the precision it needs.

About Buzzy

I'm a librarian. And a government bureaucrat. And I have a mental illness. Sometimes I write about these things. View all posts by Buzzy

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