Wordwatch Towers

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

A schizophrenic attitude?

with 16 comments

A scan of the brain using fMRI
Image via Wikipedia

A recent article in the UK newspaper the Guardian described Britain’s attitude to politicians’ wives as ‘schizophrenic’. The piece has since been rightly amended to replace ‘schizophrenic’ with ‘two-minded’, as follows:

Twentieth-century legislation giving women the vote, and much later the right to equal pay for work of equal value, has not prevented a two-minded attitude – at least in Britain – if you are the wife of a “celebrity”.

The Guardian pointed out in its corrections and clarifications column that:

The Guardian style book says the term schizophrenic should be used in a medical context only – “never to mean ‘in two minds’, contradictory, or erratic, which is wrong, as well as offensive to people diagnosed with this illness”.

Read more on this topic in the articles and posts below.

As a side issue, ‘two-minded’ is a bit clumsy, I think. Maybe ‘ambivalent’ would have been a more elegant replacement word?

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

“The point is not to control what you should and shouldn’t say but rather to create an environment where people at least think about what they’re saying before being horrible or downright offensive.” From: Crazy talk: The language of mental illness stigma, by David Steele writing in the Guardian

Use of the term ‘autistic’

Casual use of the term ‘bipolar’

Am I allowed to say that? A no-nonsense guide to politically correct writing


16 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. How about a lot clumsy? The G’s problem is attempting to ascribe an attitude to someone — let alone a group — based mostly on surmise.

    Not to be cantankerous, but I don’t see the slight in using a term figuratively. Nobody thinks the celebrity wives are actually schizophrenic; no one thinks that schizophrenics are somehow like celebrity wives.

    Is there now some subset of off-limits words that must only be used literally? I can’t say I almost “stroked out” when I got the bill, because stroke victims might be offended? “Schizophrenic” sounds like the wrong word-choice — both linguistically and logically — but not because it’s offensive to anyone.

    Michael Farrell

    04/05/2010 at 1:29 pm

    • Hi, Michael — I agree with your first point. I think it comes under the ‘I’m going to say that lots of people think such and such because then I can write an article about lots of people thinking such and such’ school of journalism.

      However, we have to agree to disagree about the term ‘schizophrenic’. I’ve banged on* about this before, but for the record, I think it is at best unhelpful to bandy about clinical terms in a way that both perpetuates misunderstanding of such terms and contributes to a negative attitude towards people who live with such conditions.

      *See comment thread on this post (Casual use of the term bipolar).


      04/05/2010 at 1:57 pm

      • Then may I just say I don’t like the phrase “agree to disagree”? 🙂

        Michael Farrell

        05/05/2010 at 2:49 am

        • You may if you explain why (without using the expression ‘lazy cliché’ in your answer).


          05/05/2010 at 5:33 am

          • It has no meaning. See also “It is what it is.”

            Michael Farrell

            05/05/2010 at 3:28 pm

            • I would have conceded cliché. But meaningless? Naaah. It’s just a nice (and commonly understood) way of saying, ‘We disagree, but that’s OK; the world’s not going to end in a fireball and there will still be jam for tea’. All that in three words.


              05/05/2010 at 3:54 pm

  2. I find the euphemism disagreeable: we actually disagree, but we’re going to pretend to overlook it? It’s akin to a “non-binding letter of intent”: we have no actual agreement, but we’re going to pretend as if we do. I’m all for social niceties, but not objectively false ones.

    Michael Farrell

    05/05/2010 at 4:29 pm

    • But it’s not a euphemism (a mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing). I didn’t have anything harsh or blunt to say that I wanted to dress up. There was nothing to overlook, let alone ‘pretend to overlook’. We disagree; it doesn’t matter. That’s all. I’m not going to send for my musket and meet you at dawn. (Unless you’re going to take me somewhere nice for the day.)


      05/05/2010 at 5:34 pm

      • The odds of your having a musket — let alone sending for it — are about as good as my rising at dawn.

        Michael Farrell

        05/05/2010 at 6:27 pm

  3. From The Observer‘s For the record column:

    Gok Wan: five things I know about style” (Magazine) described the TV presenter’s dress sense as “schizophrenic”, contrary to our style guide, which says: “Schizophrenia, schizophrenic. Use only in a medical context, never to mean ‘in two minds’, contradictory, or erratic, which is wrong, as well as offensive to people diagnosed with this illness.”


    11/01/2011 at 3:08 pm

  4. I’m very impressed that they fixed the usage of the word “schizophrenic”, something a lot of americans (I’m american) are too proud to do. For example Rick Chandler in this article: http://offthebench.nbcsports.com/2011/02/05/you-crazy-mental-health-advocates-in-uproar-over-high-school-dance-teams-psych-ward-routine


    11/02/2011 at 5:26 pm

    • Hi! Welcome to Wordwatch Towers — and thanks very much for posting that link. Wow – that’s some outfit they’re wearing. Kind of wrong in so many ways that it’s hard to know where to start. Always instructive, though, to try swapping one word with a comparable one: if ‘Psych Ward’ is OK, why not ‘Bipolar Ward’? ‘Schizo Ward’? ‘OCD Ward’? ‘Manic Depression Ward’? (Oh no, scrap that last one, I’m sure the coach wouldn’t want to use an out-of-date term, and anyway, I doubt it would fit on those hilarious mock straitjackets.)

      Thanks again! Interesting.


      11/02/2011 at 6:04 pm

  5. From Guy Keleny’s Errors & Omissions column in The Independent:

    Out of his mind: We noted a tension in American ideas about money in a leading article on Monday.

    “The latest victim of this schizophrenic attitude is the Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney,” we said, after he was rounded on – in a country that celebrates wealth – for offering a $10,000 bet to a rival in a debate. We should be more careful in using words from mental health. Schizophrenia does not mean a “split personality”. Schizo- comes from the Greek for split, but it refers to the separation between the mind and reality, not that between multiple personalities. Even if it were the right word to use, however, it would be in dubious taste.


    19/12/2011 at 4:02 am

Your questions and comments are welcome.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: