Why it Matters What Words we Choose: Language is not a constant, but a changing, living tool for communication that shifts and adapts as society does. Go back a thousand years in Britain, and you’ll have a lot of trouble understanding what people are saying. But you don’t have to go back that far to start noticing how much language has changed, even in a relatively short time.
One example of how language changes is related to the different professions that men and women work in, and how these have shifted over the years. For example, in times gone by, women rarely qualified and worked as doctors (even after it became legal for them to do so). Because women doctors were unusual, people tended to call them “lady doctors”. This made sense at the time, because they actually were noteworthy. Today, however, this would be an unusual, and even a slightly insulting, turn of phrase (unless there is a specific reason why the doctor’s sex is relevant to the conversation) because now lots of women work in this field. Similarly, a man working in the field of midwifery is still likely to be referred to as a “male midwife” because few men go in to this field.
It matters which words we choose to discuss people. This is not a matter of going down the path of “political correctness gone mad” but a matter of accuracy and, sometimes, courtesy. Words that were once used as factual descriptions of medical conditions include “spastic” and “moron”, but most of us avoid using these words today. Over time, these words have embarked on a journey that saw them transition from being technical medical terms, to being adopted as coarse insults, to becoming inacceptable ways of naming people with particular medical challenges.
Whether we are discussing ourselves or others, the words we choose to use matter, because they are the tools we use to frame the discussion. In the case of mental or emotional health, it’s important to choose words that are accurate and neutral, rather than derogatory. If you or someone else is suffering from depression or anxiety, for example, naming the problem accurately can be the first step towards wellness. It helps you to find the right vocabulary you need to discuss the issue with your healthcare provider and with the people in your life. It is not helpful at all to use derisory terms for people suffering from mental (or physical) ill-health, because this frames the conversation in a different manner, which is not useful or productive in terms of developing a way to manage the condition.
If you or someone you care about has a mental health issue, it’s important to be able to talk about it, and to use the right words.
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