If you’ve been a reader here for any amount of time you probably know that I’m a big proponent of letting language be language. It is a perennial concern of Very Important People that language is changing: words change meanings, new words show up, people start using new constructions, or simple vocal habits and tics change (see: vocal fry). For the most part, I like to remind people that language change is a natural and healthy part of a language. A language that doesn’t change tends to die, and there’s absolutely nothing grammatically improper about creating new ways of speaking, new words, or new definitions for words. Prescriptivist tendencies in language tend to be sexist, racist, and just straight out discriminatory.
But there are a few important exceptions to this belief, and I think it’s important to explain why.
The two most visible examples of language change that rub me the wrong way are “dissociate” used to mean “disassociate” and the slide of “trigger” from a very specific psychological term into a general term for anything that upsets someone. Both dissociate and trigger are words that were coined within psychiatric circles to describe symptoms of mental illnesses. They’re both fairly technical terms with specific definitions that are used in psychological studies, papers, diagnoses, and treatments.
There’s already a lot of confusion and misinformation that surrounds mental illnesses, especially around what different diagnoses and symptoms mean, how in control someone is, and how serious symptoms are. Most people misunderstand what the term trigger means when it’s used in a psychological context and use that lack of understanding to discount how serious it is to be triggered. Very few people have any idea what dissociation is or how serious it can be. Because of these larger public perception issues around diagnosis and understanding, it is extremely hard for people who have these symptoms (as well as disorder that have come into common parlance but aren’t truly understood) to get compassion, accommodations, or help when they’re struggling. One of the ways that people who have mental illnesses are doing activism is by trying to educate others about these terms so that if someone says to you “I think I’m dissociating right now, can you bring me something soft to touch,” you won’t think they’re making no sense and you’ll be able to help them out.
That might not seem like it’s hugely important for someone who doesn’t have these symptoms, but for a person who deals with them, it can be the difference between serious backsliding or competent coping skills.
So when people start using these terms to mean only partially related things, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s basic language change. It seems that it’s a misunderstanding of what certain diseases are and a breakdown in education. In these cases, using the language in a different way does actively harm people. It’s similar to using OCD to mean neat. While most people can understand what you mean, it’s the kind of language change that relies on a stereotyped image of a diagnosis to get its meaning, something that makes it harder for the people who actually have the diagnosis to explain what their lives are like.
In many ways, there are parallels to humor here. It certainly is possible for any subject to be funny, but a good rule of thumb is to punch up, to make fun at the person with power in a given situation. Similarly all words have the ability to change, but in general it seems like a good idea to be tolerant of changes that don’t hurt anyone or are specific to an oppressed group, while resisting changes that rely on punching down at a group.
Of course it’s not entirely possible to just stop language from changing, but what we can do is continue to inform people of the definitions that we use and that are used within communities of mental health, and ask that others do the same to stop confusion. We can continue to educate people about what mental illnesses are actually like. And one way to do that is to stop using trigger to mean “annoying thing” or dissociate to mean “move away from”.