Language Lost

Janet Coburn
4 min readOct 22, 2023

There are many words that are specific to psychology, including diagnoses, symptoms, and therapeutic techniques. Many of those terms, however, have worked their way into general conversation. Some think this is a good thing as it makes society more aware of the language we as psychiatric patients use. Others object to this use of language. They see it as diluting the meaning of the terms.

Two of the most common words that have made this shift are bipolar and OCD. Instead of diagnoses, they’re often used as descriptions of people or things that are thought to share the characteristics of the disorders. “The weather is bipolar this month.” “Beth’s house is really tidy. She’s so OCD.” These usages are, of course, inaccurate. Weather can’t have a psychiatric disorder, and a neat house is not enough to diagnose a person with OCD.

The thing is, people aren’t using them literally. Weather being bipolar is a metaphor. It conveys the idea that the weather is changeable, seemingly randomly. Calling weather bipolar expresses the concept more vividly, which is probably why it has become so popular. Calling someone OCD is an exaggeration used for effect. They’re saying that Beth is not just neat, but excessively neat. The people who use these expressions don’t have any real idea of what the terms mean. They’ve just heard them used and have only a vague, superficial idea of what they mean.

Spoons is another metaphor gone astray. Originally, it was used to describe the depletion of energy that someone with an “invisible illness” feels when they’re required to do more than they’re capable of on any given day. Spoons are a variable commodity. The neurodivergent or physically challenged never know how many “spoons” they will have at the beginning of a day and when they’ll run out of them. It’s a very powerful metaphor which makes it easier to understand the concept.

Nowadays, however, it’s used by people who don’t face these challenges to mean simply “I’m tired” or “I’m done for the day.” But these people don’t have a widely varying amount of energy at the start of each day. Oh, they may be more or less tired depending on the quantity and quality of their sleep. But they don’t begin with so few spoons that getting out of bed requires an enormous expenditure of spoons that depletes them for the rest of the day.

The word triggers is not a metaphor, but a word that has weakened over time. In psychological terms, a trigger is something that brings back vivid memories and sensations of a traumatic incident. The person who is triggered cannot control their reactions and will experience the event as if it were actually occurring in real-time. In its new meaning, a trigger is anything that a person doesn’t like or causes them to be uncomfortable. This discomfort is minor and fleeting, and does not cause sensory overload. People who use “triggered” this way betray a deep misunderstanding of the term and often make fun of the concept altogether.

These and other terms like neurodivergent and spectrum are also frequently misunderstood or misused. Some are still being defined and arguments about what they really mean often occur.

People who use the words in their specific, technical sense sometimes speak of “reclaiming” them. They are offended by the perceived misuse of the various terms and want to restrict them to their original, technical meanings. They want other people to stop using them in their new senses. They feel the new usage cheapens the words.

The thing is, language doesn’t work that way. Once a word or phrase has “escaped into the wild” and is being used with a different shade of meaning, there’s no getting it back. No matter how much you try to educate people about the “real” meaning of the word, most people will not even realize they are using it “wrong” and won’t stop using it in the new sense. In fact, the first dictionary definition of bipolar is “having or relating to two poles or extremities,” not the disorder. The non-psychiatric sense of OCD as an adjective hasn’t made it to the dictionary yet, but it’s only a matter of time now.

Personally, I can think of things a lot more heinous than describing me and the weather the same way. Is it ignorant? Yes. Is it insulting? Probably. I just think it’s a waste of time correcting one person at a time or trying to educate the masses about it. Millions of people are still going to do it, and there are more important things to educate them about.

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Janet Coburn

Author of Bipolar Me and Bipolar Us, Janet Coburn is a writer, editor, and blogger at butidigress.blog and bipolarme.blog.