BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Now for the latest installment in our Word Watch series where we examine words that have been percolating up through the media in interesting ways. This time it's "schizophrenic," which appeared well over a hundred times in various newspapers and magazines this past week alone!
BOB GARFIELD:A lot of the citations sound like this one from the Chicago Tribune. A style reporter wrote: I'm not sure if it was the fall collections for Gucci or the summer's schizophrenic weather, but July and August found me living in a sleeveless white linen top with a delicate shirred neckline, faded jeans and rhinestone-covered sandals. Racquel Dillon explains why "schizophrenic" has become so stylish.
RACQUEL DILLON: New York Daily News TV critic David Bioncouli [sp?] wanted to describe the inconsistent career of spy TV's host, Michael Ian Black.
DAVID BIONCOULI: The guy does some really good stuff, like NBC's Ed, and he does some really terrible stuff.
RACQUEL DILLON: It's a fair point, but 14 words long. Bioncouli had only an inch or two for his TV highlights that week, and a tight deadline, so he wrote that Black had a schizophrenic resume and stepped into a buzz word nightmare. "Schizophrenic" doesn't mean hot and cold, waffling or fair weather friend.
STELLA MARCH: Schizophrenia does not mean a split personality!
RACQUEL DILLON: Stella March is a member of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.
STELLA MARCH: It is a very devastating illness of the brain which causes delusions, hallucinations, poor thinking--
BROOKE GLADSTONE: March runs the Stigma-Busters e-mail newsletter which targets negative portrayals of mental illness in the media. March says the number one complaint is when people confuse multiple personality disorder with schizophrenia.
The split in schizophrenia comes from its Greek root, "schizo," but refers to a split with reality -- a disturbing break between thoughts and emotions. Columnists, commentators and critics often say schizophrenia when they're trying to describe erratic, contradictory behavior, and they apply it to all sorts of things -- a streaky sports team, shaky financial markets or a community's mood swings.
Stanford University psychiatrist David Spiegel [sp?] says psychiatry's definition of schizophrenia has changed in the last 50 years. Then in 1994, just when everyone was getting used to saying multiple personality disorder, it changed again.
DAVID SPIEGEL: And we thought the problem with multiple personality disorder was that it made it sound as though there really were 8 personalities in that one person rather than that they believed there was more than one personality.
RACQUEL DILLON: Now the term is "dis-associative identity disorder" or DID -- so how can a reporter with a deadline be expected to keep up? TV critic David Bioncouli.
DAVID BIONCOULI: In the larger context of, of cranking out about 500 byline pieces a year, if I make - if I make two slips on this particular word over a, over a two year period, I can hold my head if not high, I can at least walk.
RACQUEL DILLON: If Bioncouli worked for the San Francisco Chronicle instead of the New York Daily News, his review of Spy TV would have run afoul of the Chronicle's style book. Editorial page editor John Diaz enforces the paper's policy.
JOHN DIAZ: Well in the Chronicle's style book actually this is flagged as a word that should be used carefully and with precision. In fact the exact words in our style book is: this is a clinical term. Do not misuse as a synonym for contradictory.
RACQUEL DILLON: The Chronicle refers to Merriam-Webster's. Georgetown linguistics professor Colleen Cotter [sp?] turns to the American Heritage Dictionary.
COLLEEN COTTER: One of their definitions - the second definition - is that it's a situation or condition that results from the co-existence of disparate or antagonistic qualities, identities or activities, and then the example sentence that they give is: The National schizophrenia that results from carrying out an unpopular war.
RACQUEL DILLON: Cotter says language is performing its natural function by appropriating schizophrenic for general use. The word's meaning changes in the process, and this happens a lot with technical terms.
COLLEEN COTTER: It sums up situations so nicely! If there's not another word that just does the trick, you'll borrow a word. So you can think of it as a borrowing from a profession.
RACQUEL DILLON: According to Cotter, it might be too late to save schizophrenia from its new non-technical meaning, but for writers like Bioncouli, it's lazy journalism to give in to those colloquialisms.
DAVID BIONCOULI: I do think it's worse than ignorance to be aware that you're not using something exactly and to use it anyway.
RACQUEL DILLON: The ancients once saw a battle between good and evil within. Now psychiatry sees neurotransmitters out of whack. But the idea of two people at cross-purposes caught in the same body still captures the imagination, and the word schizophrenic embodies that idea. For On the Media I'm Racquel Maria Dillon.