Some people think I’m bonkers: or why I’m happy to be the word police

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.

About purplepersuasion

40 something service user, activist, writer and mother living with bipolar disorder. Proud winner of the Mark Hanson Prize for Digital Media at the Mind Media Awards #VMGMindAwards
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19 Responses to Some people think I’m bonkers: or why I’m happy to be the word police

  1. David says:

    Another thoughtful piece. Language is a subtle beast and it’s casual, unthinking use does make a huge difference to the way society operates. It is only as people become aware of the effect they are having that changes become made – and then get forgotten about as new norms get embedded in society. You just have to listen to dialogue from the 1930s and 1950s and 1970s to see the effect, thanks to people who do stand up and challenge what society considers to be acceptable. And there are always people with different views (for example, I personally hate the term “service user” and prefer “patient”. There are others who, for very legitimate reasons, think the exact opposite), but it is only when people like Polly realise they are using terms that carry emotive and societal contexts that things will change.

    So please don’t “calm down”, and keep up the good work. We need people like you 🙂

  2. Oh, and apologies for the it’s when i meant its. :-0

  3. hari says:

    I think that words are just a sympton of how people view things internally, and we can stop people using words but it will never stop a consciousness inside people that is negative and judgemental, it will only be a sticking plaster and the consciousness will exist but underground, and it will still be operating,

    it would be good to see a time when people in society dont use those words because it isnt in their inside consciousness to see it like like,

    it needs to happen from the inside out.

    • In our times, people have come, by and large, not to express anti-gay views, but I agree that not doing so may well just be a behaviour : if ‘the tide turned’ against LGBT, those views would still be there, and would obviously be expressed again.

  4. It’s a difficult one I think. I have to confess that I sometimes use similar words when referring to myself or my illness. But it’s an ironic thing I think. In the same way that some gay men may use “poof” or black people “nigger”. But I often wonder if it’s the wrong thing to do.

    • But who’s the judge – and on what authority ? If I want to call myself a c***, then, unless the word itself is being used in a playground, not down the pub where such language is usual, who has a right to say what I can and cannot do ?

      With a gay man who chooses to say ‘I like being a poof’, etc., what does it mean for it to be ‘the wrong thing to do’ ? In whose terms ‘wrong’, and with what implications ?

  5. Paul Byrne says:

    Very interesting………. and as always, a thought provoking read…………. I have to admit I am guily of desribing myself as “nuts”…… only on a few occasions…… and on those occasions it was well-judged as it seemed to put the other person at ease…….. I would rather diffuse the situation in that way, as it seems to make other people more willing to talk to me on an equal footing……… as always, all this is entirely subjective. Thank you for another wonderful insight……

  6. JuliesMum says:

    It is so annoying when people persist in using a word that causes problems for you personally, and then dismiss your protests in this way. It is particularly hard if you belong to a minority (or a group perceived to be a minority, as women often are) because it reiterates the fact that you don’t *belong* to the main group, and are excluded by the very fact that you don’t find the joke funny. Surely basic politeness should make us think twice if someone objects to a word we use, and consider whether or not we could use that alternative word (eccentric instead of bonkers).

    Btw, my teenage son has enthusiastically replaced his use of the slang term ‘gay’ with ‘naff’. It turns out that ‘naff’ derives from an old Polari term for straight, also meaning uncool! This followed several mother-son conversations about why it was hard for me to hear him using ‘gay’ in a derogatory way.

  7. Great article again. How disappointing for Sally Brampton to have that response! I had a lot of respect for that lady, especially after reading her book, but I can’t stand that “calm down, dear” response, it’s so disrespectful…

    I really believe that perpetuating the use of these words has a negative effect, both because it confuses the issue of what it is to live with mental health problems and because it often makes people think it’s OK not to take things as seriously as they should.

  8. pink0banana says:

    I will never fail to enjoy reading what u write! 🙂

  9. Ann says:

    good post! i work for a nonprofit in the states that focuses on mental illness and we stress the importance of language constantly. on the other hand . . . i work in a department, our info helpline, which is staffed totally by people with mental illness (by chance, not design) and when we are just totally fried from talking to people about the serious issues they face related to their own mental illness or that of their loved ones, we have definitely been known to break out the inappropriate comments and language. i think it’s a combination of reappropriating language and just plain old gallows humor. so that’s the scoop. guilty as charged, but just gotta do it sometimes!

  10. nessthehat says:

    I think there is (rightly) a difference between the language we use informally with friends and the language we use in a public medium. Having an audience is a privilege and confers power, that power should be used wisely. We have the right to free speech and the responsibility not to use that speech to cause harm or encourage outdated myths and stereotypes.

  11. flaminkati says:

    i have mental health issues and regularly call myself crazy yet if i call someone else crazy my family tell me off for being discriminatory, and just last week i overhead a conversation that called someone a ‘manic depressive lunatic’ i didn’t say anything because i had no idea where to even start! i also often refer to my flat as the funny farm and call myself loopy lou, i guess its language i shouldnt use to describe myself but i to be honest it doesnt just describe my problems it also lightens the somewhat dark words that are usually used such as mood disorders, depression and bipolar disorder. in conclusion it may not be ‘PC’ and could be discriminatory but its better than using those dark words when i’m having a brilliant day but still need to inform those around me that i have a problem!
    ps (excuse the spelling i’m dyslexic or as i like to call it i’m dyssy)

  12. Language is such a powerful tool but the problem is when it’s used in ignorance or as a weapon. Some terms as flaminkati says can be used appropriately in jest, especially in a safe and informed environment. One of the biggest problems, I think, is when generalised terms are used negatively and derogatively or specialised terms are overused and misapplied. There’s some very thought provoking ideas in your post and in the comments. 🙂

  13. If one can get, without falling down a circular argument, from a dictionary definition that just says ‘crazy’ to the word ‘insane’ or the concept of insanity, then fine. But I don’t think that one can.

    The words don’t mean much more than behaviour that is unusual, and we don’t, as judging, criticizing, bitching human-beings, often enough do much more in our lives than, for better or worse, compare ourselves in language and thought with other people. Terms like ‘crazy’ and ‘bonkers’ are just part of that vocabulary, and advertising says, almost every day, We must be bonkers / crazy to introduce some wild offer that we, in our turn, would have to be bonkers or crazy to ignore.

    So how do we get to 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. I don’t think that we do, because eccentric itself has huge connotations of not being in the centre of things, isn’t a neutral term, and could, if used to describe a person or his or her behaviour could be seen as just as offensive, when that person may self-desbribe as ‘crazy’ – ‘Look at me, I’m crazy !’.

    • I think we’re just going to have to agree to disagree. I think words are really powerful things and that using them insensitively or inaccurately really does make things worse. But I appreciate you reading the post when I just kind stuck it in a tweet, and I appreciate you giving the matter enough thought to leave me comments 🙂

  14. OK, then – I shall just quote (from memory) Chomsky’s example Colourless green ideas sleep furiously : You can have all the grammatical and syntactical elements, but no real – except a poetic – meaning.

    I’d simply say that some words, as they are now or sometimes used, are devoid of (much) meaning, e.g. endlessly saying / commenting that everything is awesome, which really just fills space, as when people punctuate their speech with like and sort of.

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