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How carefully do you choose your words?

How carefully do you choose your words?

Words can build us up, words can break us down.

These lyrics of a popular song by Hawk Nelson speak to the power of words. They remind me of a time when, as a child, I described someone with hearing loss as “deaf and dumb.” I was just repeating what I had heard adults around me say.

Fortunately, one adult who heard me educated me that this phrase implies that someone who has hearing loss is dumb or stupid. I was stunned! I had not meant to say that the person was stupid. I am grateful that this adult took the time to talk to me rather than allowing me to continue to use language that was inaccurate and harmful.

Words, and the meanings we attach to them, influence our attitudes, feelings and beliefs. As a psychologist, I am particularly aware that using mental disorder terminology to describe non-clinical situations or problems has become common. So common, perhaps, that many people do not question it or realize that they are doing it, just as my child-self did not question the use of “deaf and dumb.”

However, this use of clinical language often trivializes, stigmatizes or otherwise harms our understanding of mental illness, as well as the people who struggle with clinical levels of mental health conditions.

This is a complicated topic, but I hope that sharing a few examples will help you understand this issue more and choose your words in an informed way.

  • People with mental illness often are described as being that mental illness. “She’s bipolar,” rather than “She has bipolar disorder.” Think about this for a moment. If someone has cancer (or another medical condition), we do not say, “She’s cancer.” We say, “She has cancer.” Cancer is not her whole identity. Nor is bipolar disorder (or other mental illness) a person’s entire identity.
  • Saying, “I’m so OCD (or depressed or anxious or ADD),” when describing a preference, say, for having a healthy daily routine. In reality, OCD (depression, anxiety, ADD, etc.) is a serious mental illness that the individual cannot control and that interferes with normal functioning.
  • Instead of saying, “That’s crazy, psycho, insane, nuts,” say, “That’s wild, bizarre, odd, silly, eccentric.”
  • Instead of saying, “It drives me crazy,” say, “It annoys me.”

Words are powerful.  Please use them with care.

Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn is a licensed clinical psychologist with Advocate Medical Group – Behavioral Health in Normal, Ill.

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  1. Antoinette Castelow August 24, 2017 at 10:51 am · Reply

    I loved this article because it hit so close to home, I always told my daughter at an early age that the tongue is a powerful weapon, I told her that the tongue can build some one up or tear them down. I also told her that once something is spoken it is released into the atmosphere and we cant take it back. I told her that you can try to do fix what you said by saying “I’m sorry or I didn’t mean it that way”, but often times the damage has already been done. I also, tell those around me not to tell their children that they are “bad or crazy” as words are powerful and they often times stick. I try to be uplifting and positive, but none of us are perfect. Thank you for this informative article and bringing awareness to things we do everyday without even thinking about it and for reminding us that there is power in the tongue and the things we say to someone!

  2. I am 66. Growing up, the phrase “deaf and dumb” did not have the same meaning to me as to our writer. It meant that a person was deaf and could not speak properly, if at all. Had nothing to do with “being stupid”.

    • I agree with Marisa. ” deaf and dumb” meant could not hear or speak. Again had nothing to do with how intelligent a person was. Dr. Judy, you got a bad answer from an adult who used their
      own interpretation of deaf and dumb.
      Also, I would like to point out. To many people these days are looking to be offended. They
      can’t wait to call out someone who might have said something that they don’t like. We live in a world today were if we don’t say something that is perfectly pc. We are labeled with hate speech.
      Or insensitive to someones feelings. My advice is to lighten up. No one is perfect.

    • Yup, the very first definition of “dumb” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “lacking the human power of speech.” Plus, when we say “dumbstruck” or “dumbfounded” we don’t mean that someone’s suddenly become stupid, we mean that they are too astonished to speak.

  3. Thanks for this great advice; hope people can be more mindful of the words they use and the message they convey. As a Diabetes Educator, I often remind others not to use the term “diabetic” when referring to individuals with diabetes. The disease does not define the person. The American Diabetes Association has even addressed this issue in their 2016 Standards of Care: “In alignment with the American Diabetes Association’s (ADA’s) position that diabetes does not define people, the word “diabetic” will no longer be used when referring to individual with diabetes . . .”

  4. I”m 63 and totally agree with Marisa- it was never said as a slight nor ever took as such. To quote Pete Townshend: “That deaf,dumb and blind kid sure plays a mean pinball.” I suppose that should be edited-Huh?

  5. Thank you for the insight. I agree that using deaf and dumb as a descriptor for someone who can’t speak or hear is no longer appropriate no matter what era you grew up in. Thank you for this article. Unfortunately, there are a lot of bullies and people who would rather keep doing what they always have rather than consider someone else’s feelings. It’s called lack of empathy.

    • Hey Beth silling- It’s not called lack of empathy for I am most empathetic to all, but this is about “teaching old dogs- new tricks”. Show a little empathy for your elders as we try to adjust. I take great offense being lumped in with bullies, of which I am certainly NOT!

  6. Being courteous to another human being is what we should all be striving for, but from the article and from the comments I am troubled by the attitude surrounding communication in general. It’s this attitude of offense taken for slights unseen by the person which makes people so on edge and doesn’t allow us to feel comfortable speaking with each other. “Offense is never given, it is always taken.” The way in which we choose to respond to someone’s communication is the only and best way to deal with these situations. Telling someone they are using “wrong speak” is not the way to increase communication. It stifles relationships and creates animosity between people and groups. The word dumb had two meaning for me growing up, a medical term for a person who could not speak and an adjective describing something as being not smart. Sometimes a person was both, sometimes a person was one or the other, but if I was effectively communicating with other people then there was little or no doubt to the intention of its use. It’s sad that nuance is gone from our discourse. It’s sad that if someone says a word, that a negative assumption is made about their intentions without asking first. Of course people don’t need to be intentionally heartless while speaking with others and we should always be mindful of how our communications are getting across, but filtering and socially editing common language to appease the mob because it ‘might’ offend someone is authoritarian and antithetical to an open and honest society. It’s that openness and honesty which allows us to better understand our fellow neighbor, not an approved list of words to use.

  7. Right-on Anon!!

  8. Just be respectful and everything will be fine.

  9. Thank you for this article; It reminds me to be more self aware of my own choice of words, at home, in the community and/or in the work-place. It can be applied in many areas, culture, background. Words often convey our thoughts and feelings. When best adhered to, it helps support professionalism, best practice, and mature behavior. Even when others do not follow suit, those who do- set an example, and unknowingly lead, I feel. I think clients or patients hear and sense the respect we have for them, more than we think they do, by our choice of words. I like to slow it down, so we all think more about what we will say. When one is under pressure, one is tested. I was fortunate I had some school teachers and a few experiences whom and which I learned a little bit about integrity. I’m still learning; we all need to.

About the Author

Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn
Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn

Dr. Judy Ronan Woodburn is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with Advocate Medical Group – Behavioral Health in Normal, Ill. She has helped her clients through a variety of issues for more than 20 years.