The meaning of 'schizophrenic' Back to obscure writing menu
Vivian Cook

I send versions of the following comment to newspapers etc who misuse the word 'schizophrenic', usually without getting any reply.


Some schizophrenics in England feel deeply upset by the commonplace use of the term "schizophrenic" to mean having two opposing views or personalities, or, as the COBUILD English dictionary puts it, ‘a person's behaviour is described informally as schizophrenic when they seem to have very different purposes or opinions at different times’. The implication that schizophrenia is multiple or variable personalities is for a start inaccurate; out of the many possible symptoms, hallucinations of voices and change of personality are more likely to be diagnostic. This use therefore reinforces a misleading interpretation of the illness. The original coiner of the word, Eugen Bleuler, intended it to show disruption of mental functions, not multiple personalities.

But to these sufferers the use of the name of the disease from which they suffer as an everyday term seems discriminatory; the following sentences about other diseases would be obviously objectionable, even if very grammatical – "I feel rather spastic\ diabetic\ tubercular\ HIV about this"; why is "I feel schizophrenic about this" acceptable? To quote I. Gottesman (Schizophrenia Genesis, W.H. Freeman, Oxford/New York, 1991). ‘Everyday misuse of the terms schizophrenia or schizophrenic to refer to the foreign policy of the United States, the stock market, or any other disconfirmation of one's expectations does an injustice to the enormity of the public health problems and profound suffering associated with this most puzzling disorder of the human mind.’

Clearly one does not want to add another meaningless shibboleth to the litany of political correctness. But it would seem useful that at any rate those professionally concerned with using language should be aware of the distress that they may be causing by such casual remarks.