Wordwatch Towers

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

Hysterical, queenly and psychotic

with 8 comments

British journalist Adam Boulton of Sky News.
Image via Wikipedia

Sky News presenter Adam Boulton and Labour party insider and erstwhile spin-meister Alastair Campbell almost came to blows on live TV recently. You can read about the incident here and view the encounter.

It was duly written about in the UK newspaper the Guardian, and a correction duly (and rightly, in my opinion) followed:

Referring to the Adam Boulton-Alastair Campbell encounter, a column described one of the parties as “hysterically queenly and psychotically aggressive”. The Guardian’s style guide states that terms such as psychotic should be used only in a medical context.

The Guardian also censured itself in relation to a column about TV coverage of the election which referred to the ‘psychotic personality of a long-range military sniper’.

The hijacking of clinical psychiatric terms for use as terms of abuse has been much discussed here at Wordwatch Towers in the posts listed below.

Hysterically queenly

I was also interested in that casual pejorative phrase ‘hysterically queenly’. Let me just say first of all that I am not advocating that the word ‘hysterical’ should not be used: it’s a perfectly good word. However, it is nonetheless noteworthy that this is another term of abuse, among many, rooted in misogyny. The Oxford Dictionary of English (ODE) notes that the word ‘hysteric’ comes from Greek and Latin meaning ‘of the womb’. It goes on to say: ‘Hysteria (exaggerated and uncontrollable emotion or excitement) being thought to be specific to women and associated with the womb’.

And then there’s that word ‘queenly’. Not ‘hysterically kingly’ then? Even though the writer is referring to a man? I looked up ‘queenly’ in the ODE. The definition is: ‘Resembling, fit for, or appropriate to a queen’. Interesting. So I looked up ‘kingly’ and could only find it listed as an adjective under ‘king’, the latter meaning a ruler or a person regarded by their peers as the ‘finest or most important’.

Neither ‘kingly’ nor ‘queenly’ would seem appropriate as a term of abuse, yet the female version is chosen to act as such, a role bolstered by the tenuous link with ‘hysterically’. Again, interesting.

So, in summary, a nice collection of abusive terms derived from psychiatry and women-related language. Easy pickings.

A schizophrenic attitude?

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

Use of the term ‘autistic’

Casual use of the term ‘bipolar’

Like every harlot in history.

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


8 Responses

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  1. That would be “queenly” as in “more camp than Milletts”, and, in that context, is remarkably appropriate as a term of abuse for Boulton. And less libellous than the alternatives.


    19/05/2010 at 5:17 pm

    • Hi, Ron — I’m not so sure that such an interpretation of ‘queenly’ would be any more palatable as a term of abuse than its straightforward assocation with women. I couldn’t make up my mind if that alternative interpretation was the intention or not. Either way, nil points for originality, let alone anything else.


      19/05/2010 at 5:41 pm

    • And psychotic, a clinical condition, is all too often used, even in the Grauniad, as a synonym for psychopathic, which isn’t.


      19/05/2010 at 5:27 pm

      • Yes — that’s the other problem that arises when laypeople bandy about these terms.


        19/05/2010 at 5:41 pm

  2. It doesn’t really matter if the writer intended to use ‘queenly’ as a purely woman-related word, or as a snide term relating to gay men (the latter being a double whammy combining both women and gay-related language to use as abuse). Neither interpretation is defensible.

    Lizi B

    20/05/2010 at 7:39 am

    • Hi, Lizi — many thanks for that really clear analysis, which is better than the one I provided in this post.


      20/05/2010 at 8:19 am

  3. Hi Deborah,

    The term “hysterically queenly” had me scratching my head. I would use “queenly” as an adjective to describe someone who was regal, dignified and somewhat icy. Teaming it with “hysterically,” is to me a somewhat clumsy oxymoron. I can’t picture someone being simultaneously hysterical and queenly. But that’s just me. 🙂


    20/05/2010 at 8:04 pm

    • Hi, Jo-Anne — yes, it is certainly a strange one. Your definition of ‘queenly’ would be mine too. I’ve certainly not come across ‘hysterically queenly’ before.


      20/05/2010 at 8:12 pm

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