Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

Casual use of the term ‘bipolar’

with 27 comments

Sodium valproate is a common mood stabilizer

Sodium valproate is a common mood stabilizer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Terry Smith, Chief Executive of leading financial brokers, Tullett Prebon, said on BBC Radio 4 this morning that politicians are ‘a little bit bipolar about banks’.

Why is this not OK?

This thoughtless and insensitive hijacking of psychiatric terminology to use as a negative judgemental description about politicians’ (or anyone else’s) attitudes and behaviour should be avoided.

Read Siobhain Butterworth in the Guardian on the use of the word ‘autistic’ as a term of abuse.

Use of the term ‘autistic’

What is bipolar disorder?

Living with bipolar

The Bipolar Foundation

The Bipolar Organisation

A no-nonsense guide to politically correct writing



27 Responses

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  1. Agreed. We read quite often about folks who, it is conjectured, must have ADHD or OCD or some other “disability du jour”…

    Maggie Manning

    15/01/2010 at 3:24 pm

    • Hi, Maggie — thanks for that. Another favourite is to refer to someone’s behaviour as ‘schizophrenic’. It always amazes me that intelligent, educated people use such clinical terms so inappropriately.


      15/01/2010 at 3:33 pm

  2. Oops. *skulking away* Not even in jest, with friends?

    Michael Farrell

    15/01/2010 at 4:11 pm

    • Isn’t that a bit like using racist language ‘only with friends’?

      A good question — food for thought. Thanks.


      15/01/2010 at 4:13 pm

  3. *sternly* Perish the thought!

    Maggie Manning

    15/01/2010 at 4:13 pm

    • A good question answered!


      15/01/2010 at 4:15 pm

  4. I need new friends. The grey area to me would be when I, a non-professional, make a snap or offhand judgment about someone, say in my business world, who (to my untrained eye) seems to be, say, compulsive (or worse). I don’t know if the person is and surely don’t have any diagnosis, but, to explain the person to someone else, I might slap a label on him or her. I might be wildly wrong as a matter of science, but I don’t think that’s discriminatory.

    I have a matter now where my colleague and I are making guesses about the twisted mental state of an opponent. (Objectively, the other guy has done some truly bad things.) We don’t really know what we’re talking about in scientific terms, but we’re making barely informed assessments of the other guy’s psych problems. What do you think?

    Michael Farrell

    15/01/2010 at 5:26 pm

    • I think the problem arises when we reach for clinical descriptions to describe attitudes/behaviour/opinions — or just people — that we don’t like or disapprove of. This has the immediate effect of casting the clinical condition (and any person who lives with that condition) in a negative light.

      I would ask: are we using the terms because consciously or unconsciously we take a negative view of people who are actually clinically diagnosed with such conditions?

      And: does the way we use such language reinforce these negative stereotypes?

      And: because a person has done bad things (as in your example above) why do they need to be given a probably innaccurate clinical ‘label’? A person who actually lives with the clinical condition you are conjecturing about may be as horrified as anyone else by the actions of this person.

      I think the casual use of clinical terms as negative descriptions becomes particularly pernicious when used by those in the public eye and by the media.


      15/01/2010 at 6:44 pm

  5. Hmmmm. I have some thoughts on this but should wait till the cold light of dawn (and black coffee). It goes without saying that I utterly respect and carefully listen to your opinions and ideas.

    Michael Farrell

    16/01/2010 at 6:41 am

  6. *coffee at hand* I’m not offended by use of “bipolar” here, except that it’s silly or hyperbolic as applied to many politicians. 🙂 In stretching for a provocative metaphor, the writer has used the term in a way that’s unscientific and merely inflammatory.

    However, in the instances I mentioned earlier, is just describing someone as having, say, “OCD” offensive or discriminatory when the person seems to display (to the layperson) obsessively compulsive traits? If so, then can only medical doctors use such terms, or those who’ve seen a medical diagnosis? That goes too far, to my thinking. It would restrict our choice of words to the vocabulary of our own fields or professions, so that a non-lawyer couldn’t use “felon,” at least without proof of such an adjudication.

    I am NOT saying that, say, “OCD” might not be rude, inaccurate, or even defamatory; it could be. I’m not saying that slurs like “retard” aren’t offensive and wrong. I’m just saying that, even if we’re ill-informed or not specialists on the condition, it’s not to me offensive or discriminatory to “label” (heated term) someone with such a condition where it seems to fit.

    In the “bad man” example I gave (from true life), that guy has real, demonstrated sociopathic problems. I don’t know that for an absolute fact, but we have enough intimations, based on his bad acts and comments from family members and associates, that I bet we’re very close to the mark. We don’t have a medical exam or formal diagnosis of him, and we may never get one. But (sorry) I don’t see why that stops us from discussing his “sociopathic” conduct.

    Michael Farrell

    16/01/2010 at 7:24 pm

  7. I ran out of space on your blog’s form, but wanted to end with the following:

    This concern is not something I’ve bumped into before, but maybe that’s just the definition of thick or clueless. At a bare minimum, your thoughts on it have made me think more about the issue and to ask myself if I and my colleagues have been discriminating.

    Michael Farrell

    16/01/2010 at 7:26 pm

    • Hi, Michael — many thanks for taking the time to share these thoughtful remarks. In response, here’s how I see it:

      1. If I, or someone I cared about, were diagnosed as having a bipolar condition, I would not like the term to be used as a casual term of abuse. It is telling that the word is never called upon for use as a complimentary term (as with all other terms used to describe mental conditions – they are always hijacked to be used as an insult).

      2. You say: “It would restrict our choice of words to the vocabulary of our own fields or professions, so that a non-lawyer couldn’t use “felon,” at least without proof of such an adjudication.” Just so — Terry Smith would not have referred to politicians as ‘felons’: he might have been sued. There is no such comeback for people with mental conditions.

      3. By ‘labelling people as you see fit’ might you not be perpetuating (even in a small way) the general ignorance that prevails about mental illness? And, again, aren’t you calling upon clinical terms to define various attributes that you do not like? Do you ever select from a range of psychiatric terms to describe something or someone that you do like?

      4. Perhaps the person you are speaking about has a personality disorder and perhaps he doesn’t; perhaps he’s just a horrible person, as anyone can be, with or without a mental condition.

      It’s very hard to change the ingrained ways that we speak and write. I also wonder how much we take our cue from the words and phrases that the media and people in the public eye use and, on the other hand, how much they carry on using them because they see that they are common and acceptable currency among the public.

      Thanks again for commenting here. Much appreciated.


      16/01/2010 at 8:13 pm

  8. All fair and worthwhile points. Since I’ve been going on (ahh-gain), I think I’ll mull them over then reply later, ok?

    Michael Farrell

    16/01/2010 at 8:21 pm

    • No problem.

      As a further extension of my thoughts above, it is interesting to note that although it is, unfortunately, so acceptable to bandy about clinical terms for mental illness, the same is not true about other diagnostic terms. I think it would be safe to say that Terry Smith, although happy to use the term ‘bipolar’, would not use ‘learning difficulties’ as a term of abuse to use about bankers.

      Also, slightly off-topic but related, is the use of other words as terms of abuse. Examples that really get my goat are ‘woman’ (as of a man perceived to be ‘acting like a woman’), ‘big girl’ (as of a man perceived to be acting in a silly or ‘feminine’ way) and ‘old woman’ (for example, someone fussing about or talking a lot would be described as ‘going on’ or ‘acting like’ an old woman.) I don’t know if these terms are used in a similar way in the US. It goes without saying that ‘man’ is never used as a term of abuse.


      17/01/2010 at 11:03 am

  9. Yes, same usage — and more — here. “Gay” is also tossed about, more by kids, as in “That’s so gay!” (meaning not exactly gay but weak, effeminate, failing, etc.).

    Oh, I bet I can think of plenty of negative labels using “man” in some form. Many are doubly offensive, since they’re based on perceived “mannish” traits. TV star Jennifer Aniston, who has a square jaw, is known as “Maniston.” Here are a few (cleaner) slang examples of “man” usage: man boobs, man purse, man ho, manbearpig, man crush, etc.

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 5:40 pm

    • Touché.

      But — I always have a but — I don’t think the terms you cite quite equate with the use of ‘woman’ or ‘girl’ as a term of abuse. For example, the ‘Maniston’ thing is just another way of saying Jennifer looks like a a man, which is an insult to a woman. It’s not saying that looking like a man is a negative thing per se. And is ‘man purse’ a term of abuse? And isn’t ‘man boobs’ just a description of an undesirable physical trait in a man? I’m not familiar with ‘manbearpig’ or ‘man crush’.

      Yes, gay is — controversially — also used here in a negative sense in the way you describe.


      17/01/2010 at 5:57 pm

  10. Oh, dems certainly all abusive fightin’ words. Agreed re “Maniston”: doubly offensive. I am censoring myself here, but I’ll look for some more “man” examples; I know they exist. As in my examples, a lot of the “man” words are slags at traditional mannish traits, e.g., hetero men shouldn’t carry purses, so one who carries a messenger bag must be using a “man purse.”

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 6:07 pm

  11. *hands on hips* Do I have to do ALL your research for you?? 🙂

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 6:23 pm

  12. Ouuu, just thought of a classic, female-only pejorative: “cougar.” Here’s a definition from UrbanDictionary.com:

    Function: noun
    Etymology: French couguar, modification of New Latin cuguacuarana
    Date: 1774
    Date of urban adoption: circa mid-1990s
    : a woman, typically in the 30s, who intentionally preys on younger men, who are typically in their early 20s. Although the term’s urban use began pejoratively, it is now usually viewed as a compliment, as young men frequently seek out attractive cougars.

    I’d disagree (as did many others on the site) with (1) the age range given and (2) the non-pejorative associations. Note there’s no male equivalent — but nor is there a female equivalent for “cuckold” and many other terms.

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 7:04 pm

    • Call me thick but I’m not following you here. Isn’t that intended as a pejorative term for a woman??

      And don’t get me started on the numerous insulting (some truly horrible) words that have been coined over centuries to insult women, as compared to the minute number that relate to men.


      17/01/2010 at 7:15 pm

  13. No, you are correct. I just cited it ’cause it’s an example of a pejorative used only for women. An older male with a much younger woman might be socially admired or complimented (though it would not surprise me if a male equivalent to “cougar” were developed sometime soon).

    I agree the number directed at women is far higher; but, when I get a sec, I’ll find a few more aimed at men.

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 7:22 pm

  14. I found this cool link to pejorative terms for people, on a site called “Global Oneness: co-creating a happy world”: http://www.experiencefestival.com/pejorative_terms_for_people One link counts and compares the number of offensive terms for a variety of nationalities.

    I also found this link on gender pejoratives (more against women): http://www.alphadictionary.com/blog/?p=295 The blogger mentions, for men, the terms gigolo, boy toy, and pool boy, then rightly points out that the last two are implied digs at the women who fancy such a male.

    More later….

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 7:58 pm

    • Thanks, Michael — I do appreciate all your contributions to my blog. They make it so much more interesting!


      17/01/2010 at 8:08 pm

  15. Oh, pshaw. *scuffing dirt with toe* Your blog has so many nooks and crannies I haven’t read yet.

    Light rain starting here. Time to (as a UK paper had it) “baton” down the hatches.

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 8:32 pm

  16. A very extensive, international list of pejorative terms for people, arranged A to Zee (or is it Zed?): http://duckduckgo.com/c/Pejorative_terms_for_people

    Here’s a solid male pejorative that manages to insult mothers, as well: “momma’s (or mother’s) boy.” How about “The Man,” referring to an oppressive governmental or social force? There are “bubba” and “good old boy,” which are pejorative but can also be terms of endearment.

    The Romance languages, with their gender-specific nouns and adjectives, tend to use the male pejorative for general use. See gringo, cholo, güero.

    On the flip side, what’s a male spinster? I dunno. For every “sugar daddy” there’s a “gold digger” or “baby momma.” There are “blondes” and “dumb blondes” but no “dumb blonds.” Whatever shall we do?

    Michael Farrell

    17/01/2010 at 9:36 pm

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