Unintended Consequences

It’s easy to fall into the habit of using a word that appears to encapsulate a complex situation neatly and perhaps even evocatively. But in some cases, a word becomes a catchall, go-to term, and its common usage ignores and even contradicts its actual meaning.

Triangular caution sign showing figure tripping on obstacleA good example of this phenomenon is the use of “schizophrenic” outside of discussions of mental health. Many writers employ the word in an effort to summarize a set of conditions or events characterized by conflict and opposition. It might be about two sides pulling against each other with great force. Or the writer might be using it as shorthand to describe a rapidly changing situation, with extreme highs and lows. For example, a Wall Street Journal blog post’s headline described the futures market during a week in 2008 as “A Schizophrenic Situation.”

The WSJ example is one of the more egregious misuses of the term. The blog post goes on to describe the drop in stock value of a pharmaceutical company working on a medication to treat people with schizophrenia. The blogger apparently thought an “up-for-a-day, down-for-a-day” market fluctuation was parallel to a complex medical diagnosis that is characterized by delusions, hallucinations, and/or extremely disorganized behavior, among other symptoms.

Using a term for a complex medical diagnosis to describe something entirely unrelated—whether it’s the stock market or a person’s conflicted feelings—obscures the writer’s intended meaning and creates an obstacle to readers. It also contributes to confusion about the reality of mental illness and negative views of people with the diagnosis. For most writers, this is an unintended consequence, but it’s one to avoid.

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