On Saturday morning I was sitting with some friends, basking in the unseasonable October sunshine, where copies of various Saturday broadsheets were spread out among the coffee cups. Someone had the Times weekend colour supplement, and the cover story – an interview with Robbie Williams by Polly Vernon – caught my eye. I take an interest in Williams, not so much for his music, as for his openness about his mental health difficulties; when delivering teaching on mental health to undergraduates a few years ago, I used the part of the DVD Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive in which Williams talks candidly to Fry about his emotional issues. “Feel free to have a read,” said my friend – unfortunately, I can’t say the same to you, because of course the article is stuck behind the Times’ paywall.
I found much of the interview interesting and illuminating, but I was left feeling very uncomfortable with the use (on more than one occasion) of the words “bonkers” and “certifiable”. I tweeted as much at the time, and Polly Vernon quickly came back to me, saying that she “was addressing popular notions about him. Nothing to do with mental health. Think I addressed his depression sensitively.” (I had raised no concerns about her treatment of his depressive episodes). The following day, after a Twitter friend had also tweeted Vernon to say that she agreed with me, Vernon reiterated: “He is fascinated by the possibility of aliens. He appeared on tv naked but for leaves last night. This has nothing to do with his depression, but could be described as bonkers behavior.” At this point, no less than the Sunday Times’ agony aunt, Sally Brampton (who has bipolar disorder), joined the conversation, saying, “For goodness sake. Great article, Polly. I am depressive, bonkers and certifiable. And I’m not defined by that.” I replied that I felt strongly about how words were used, to which Sally responded: “Totally understand but being the word police does us no favours. Depressives are the cleverest and funniest people around.”
Accused of being the “Word Police”? Hmmm. Well, you know what, maybe I am. My first degree was in English, with a heavy emphasis on linguistics and discourse analysis, so I tend to look at not just the top level meaning of the words we choose, and how we combine them, but the subtext and the underlying attitudes they display. I think words really matter. I work with some of the most stigmatised people in society; many have substance misuse problems, many are violent, some have no right to be in the UK, some meet the clinical threshold for “psychopathy”. But I don’t call them “junkies”, “illegals” or “psychopaths”, and I don’t let the use of those words go unchallenged when I hear workers from other agencies use them.
Start to pick apart the words used in Vernon’s interview, and her claim that they are “nothing to do with mental health” doesn’t hold much water. Here’s the dictionary definition of those two words (from the Concise Oxford):
Certifiable adj 1. Able or needing to be certified. 2 colloq. insane.
Bonkers adj. sl. crazy [20th c.: orig. unkn.]
Certifiable is really interesting – it’s like that episode of The Simpsons (“Stark Raving Dad”) where Homer gets INSANE stamped on his hand, and is carted off to a “Home for the Emotionally Interesting”. The episode plays on the idea that there is an objective test for insanity (in Homer’s case, a 20 item questionnaire he’s too lazy to complete himself) that separates out those who are “officially insane” from “the normal people”. It’s a very divisive, “them and us” term, which I had hoped had been largely superseded by a more nuanced approach that sees mental health as a continuum that we all sit somewhere upon.
Bonkers is another interesting word, because no-one’s sure of its origins. It’s quaintly English word, which only seems to have been around for 60 years or so, and may or may not have something to do with how someone behaves after a “bonk” on the head. It certainly has somewhat light-hearted, affectionate connotations, but is still very much a synonym for insanity (type the word into Google and you’ll probably get the video of the Dizzee Rascal hit, in which he asserts, from a stylised padded cell, that he is not crazy).
It’s completely true that Vernon wasn’t using these words in respect of Williams’ depressive episodes or substance misuse. She wasn’t speaking explicitly about mental health issues when she used them. But to say that those two words which are defined in the most world’s most reputable English dictionary as synonymous with “insane” are nothing to do with mental health is disingenuous, and the way they were used – to describe some of Williams’ more outré antics – perpetuates an association between mental illness and behaviour or beliefs which are bizarre or difficult for “normal” people to understand. One Twitter friend correctly noted that there are parallels with the use of the word “gay” as a put-down. A kid who says to his friend, “man, your trousers are gay” is not explicitly referring to anything to do with sexuality. He’s not saying, “You are wearing trouser-loving trousers, who prefer to identify as such, and just aren’t turned on by being paired with shirts or blouses.” He’s not even saying, “Your trousers look like something a gay man would wear.” He’s saying “Your trousers look uncool and embarrassing”, embodying a cultural assumption that homosexuality is uncool and embarrassing (do you get it yet, Chris Moyles?). Another example is using the word “lame” to describe something when, again, you mean actually rubbish – a usage which might not feel so harmless if you have a disability which causes you difficulty in walking.
It’s also fair to say that plenty of people won’t be bothered by language. There are some women who aren’t at all offended to be called a “chick”, “girl”, or “female”. But there are many who find those terms belittling and patronising. Sally’s happy to be called “bonkers” and “certifiable”. Good on her. One of my Twitter followers told me that she too was quite content to be referred to by those words. But a large number of my followers expressed dismay at the those terms appearing in a national newspaper in this day and age, particularly connected with someone so famous who has also gone on record as having experienced mental distress. The subtext of telling people who challenge what they see as inappropriate language use that they are “the word police” is, quite simply: “shut up” (or, perhaps, “calm down, dear!”).
One follower asked me a very interesting question: “is it only okay for people who are actually ‘bonkers’ to use such terminology?” In other words, can we, who identify as having a mental health problem, use words like “bonkers” about ourselves, while others can’t? Reappropriation has of course gone on in a number of community groups, with a range of once derogatory words, and it’s usually highly offensive for someone outside that group to try and use the reclaimed words. Many people in my Twitter stream are happy to refer to themselves as “mental” or “crazy” or “bonkers”, but would probably be far less happy to have anyone outside the service user community do so. In those undergrad teaching sessions of mine, I also gave students materials on Mad Pride and Bonkersfest, in attempt to help them understand that not everyone sees their mental health condition as a negative. I guess, then, my answer to that question is: probably. These are stigmatising words. The only good I can see in continuing to use them is in those of us to whom they might be applied attempting to subvert them. And I certainly don’t think we should be using them to describe behaviour which is actually – as the interview concluded by admitting – just a bit eccentric.