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"Schizophrenia" has two definitions. The one I am concerned with is as follows:

contradictory or antagonistic qualities or attitudes
-- "schizophrenia," Merriam-Webster

This is a very useful word, but I'm concerned that it might be perceived as pejorative towards individuals with the mental condition, or as inaccurately stereotyping them. I don't actually know whether this is the case, but I could imagine it being so.

On the other hand, I'm not sure what words I could use instead. "Inconsistent" and "contradictory" are close, but they do not connote the same level of agency as "schizophrenic." For example, if an organization is described as "schizophrenic," I imagine a number of departments locked in some kind of bureaucratic war with one another. A "contradictory organization" doesn't make sense, and an "inconsistent organization" is a much less vivid image for me (maybe it's just incompetently run). Meanwhile, the word "antagonistic" has agency but lacks direction; it does not denote that the antagonism is inward-facing.

On the third hand, this meaning seems entirely compatible with the Greek etymology of "schizophrenia" ("split" + "mind"), which makes it seem less like a twisting of the medical definition and more of a figurative allusion to it. I'm not sure that makes a practical difference (people will or won't take offense either way), but it's worth noting all the same.

  • Is the word "schizophrenic" likely to be taken as pejorative or stereotypical of this group of people?
  • If so, what word or phrase should I use instead to convey the same meaning without the pejorative connotations?
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  • I think this is confirmation bias. A schizophrenic who does not have contradictory attitudes is likely never revealed to be a schizophrenic (as his identities never clash, therefore never leading anyone to evaluate if they're schizophrenic). While schizophrenics may or may not have contradictory attitudes, known schizophrenics tend to always have contradicting attitudes (because it's the contradiction that causes them to be identified as schizophrenic). The figurative usage heavily relies on the common perception of schizophrenics, hence the inherent meaning of contradicting attitudes.
    – Flater
    Sep 21, 2017 at 10:46
  • I'm sorry but it is impossible to find a word related to this one that does not have negative connotations. It is a medical word appropriated by others.
    – Lambie
    Oct 6, 2021 at 19:15

3 Answers 3

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If we follow the OED definition:

A word or expression which by its form or context expresses or implies contempt for the thing named

Then it's not pejorative to people with schizophrenia, as they are not "the thing named" in the use.

But that's a matter of the word pejorative. It's still insulting to them to use their condition as a term for a negative condition about something else, which is probably more to the point.

If your intention is to avoid ableist language, then such uses are best avoided.

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  • @TripeHound the term was coined by Eugen Bleuler to describe a medical condition, so the etymology is certainly one of using that medical term in a negative figurative sense. We could argue there's a difference in that it is using an outdated understanding of a medical term in a negative figurative sense, but if you are wishing to avoid insult then that is if anything, worse.
    – Jon Hanna
    Sep 21, 2017 at 10:30
  • If that's the case, then you're entirely correct (as I said, I didn't know which came first). I'll delete my speculative comment.
    – TripeHound
    Sep 21, 2017 at 10:42
  • "Punic" was originally in reference to the Carthaginians, who had a longstanding feud with Rome. English now uses "punic faith" to mean "a promise that one can put no trust in" (based on the Latin punica fides). But I would say that someone who uses "punic faith" in English isn't being pejorative towards Carthaginians, he is merely referencing a concept established by the Romans. The concept (untrustworthy faith) is not pejorative, even though its etymological origins may be found in pejorative usage.
    – Flater
    Sep 21, 2017 at 10:58
  • Since the figurative use of "schizophrenic" is listed in the OED, that should mean that those who use the word figuratively are not being pejorative, as they are merely referencing a later concept. Similarly, calling a waiter a "server" is not pejorative, even though the etymological origins of "server" come from the Latin word for "slave". Yet no one argues that calling a waiter a "server" is akin to calling him a slave.
    – Flater
    Sep 21, 2017 at 11:00
  • @Flater, for one thing there's a lot more linguistic distance. For another, the Punics are unlikely to be upset by this.
    – Jon Hanna
    Sep 21, 2017 at 11:00
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Jon Hanna, thanks for this "If we follow the OED definition: A word or expression which by its form or context expresses or implies contempt for the thing named Then it's not pejorative to people with schizophrenia, as they are not "the thing named" in the use. ... It's still insulting to them to use their condition as a term for a negative condition about something else, which is probably more to the point. "If your intention is to avoid ableist language, then such uses are best avoided."

In answer to the original question, using the example, "an organization is described as "schizophrenic,"

How about going back to the original Greek etymology: "the organization seems to be of 2 minds"

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It seems you are asking for general guidance about when it is wise to use figurative language which refers to disabilities suffered by real people.

It depends on what you are doing.

  • If you are writing a technical document, you may want to substitute something more directly descriptive, such as

    • Internally contradictory,
    • Inconsistent
    • Seemingly random
    • Lacking reasoned basis

    What will be appropriate will depend on what you are trying to say. Depending on your audience, it may be good to avoid figurative language, and instead describe as closely as you can the thing to which you are referring.

    This will be particularly the case if you are writing in a sensitive area, perhaps one with close legal regulation (such as an HR manual) or which is politically fraught.

  • If you are writing a novel, you might wish to do the opposite, and instead expand the figurative language, either to add atmosphere, or perhaps or deliberately emphasise the implied insult as an illustration of the character of the speaker or the narrator.

But in general, figurative use of an unfortunate disability is not pejorative to those with the disability.

For example, if an organisation needs to perform two functions to be successful, and I call it a one-legged organisation, then I am saying it is failing at one of the functions; I am not disparaging the morality of one-legged people.

Figurative use just recognises that the disability is not desirable. Most people would not choose to be schizophrenic, nor to lose a leg. I know I would not.

I am sure it is annoying for people to have their blameless condition used as a metaphor, but that can happen to us all. Just ask anyone named Karen.

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