The Centre for Solution Focused Practice

The power of words . . . and why we must deploy them carefully.

‘There is a weird power in a spoken word.... And a word carries far—very far — deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space.’
Joseph Conrad

What is it about wars that so appeals to many politicians? You cannot help but suspect that Trump is revelling in his new role as a self-described ‘wartime president’, whilst for Johnson the opportunity to channel Winston Churchill is proving too much to resist, even while it merely serves to highlight, repeatedly, poor Boris’ failings. However, while the UK invokes its Dunkirk or Blitz spirit, it seems to have forgotten a piece of WW11 wisdom that might come in useful today, namely the propaganda line ‘loose lips sink ships’ or its slightly lesser known partner ‘careless talk costs lives’. The UK government’s disastrously mixed messages over the past week or so, as it has executed a pandemic policy U-turn whilst denying that it has done any such thing, will surely be proved to have cost lives when the final reckonings are made many years’ hence, but the need to take care with language is not restricted to politicians. 24-hour news services in times of crisis require a constant line-up of commentators, or pandemic pundits one might term them in our current context. Academics, medics of all stripes, politicians, celebrities, TV experts, media folk, members of the public, fitness experts, dieticians and more are unearthed by researchers desperate to fill another 10 minutes of airtime. And these new experts, no doubt tickled by the prospect of their ‘15 minutes of fame’ also need to be reminded to take care with their words.

On Monday this last week Simon McCoy was hosting a question and answer session with two of our new experts, a microbial epidemiologist and an anthropologist if my memory serves me correctly. The guests were presented with a question about ‘lock-down’ and the epidemiologist in arguing his response used the term ‘stir crazy’, a phrase which the anthropologist also used in her subsequent response to the same question. People it was implied could go ‘stir crazy’ if they were required to self-isolate for any period of time. An online dictionary offers us the following definition of the term ‘stir crazy’:

adjective Slang.
Informal. restless or frantic because of confinement, routine, etc. ‘I was stir-crazy after just two months of keeping house.’
mentally ill because of long imprisonment.

The words ‘frantic’, ‘mentally ill’, ‘imprisonment’ stand out. ‘In stir’ of course is a slang term for ‘in prison’ whilst ‘crazy’ comes with its own bunch of synonyms ‘mentally deranged; demented; insane, senseless; impractical; totally unsound’. So people who have gone ‘stir crazy’ might respond in ways that are entirely irrational or irresponsible, two more potential synonyms. Indeed if people are ‘crazy’ they could choose to flout society’s rules and expectations. People who are ‘crazy’ might congregate on the streets, they might perhaps behave in ways which put others at risk. If they have gone ‘stir crazy’ they could do almost anything to relieve the awfulness of their torment. They might even ‘run amock’. After all if they are ‘in stir’ someone has imprisoned them against their will and they will surely be angry, perhaps even furious about it. They might even want to punish the perpetrator who has imposed this restriction on their liberty and freedom of choice. The term ‘stir crazy’ is clearly emotive. It conjures up strong feelings.

We might therefore argue that offering ‘stir crazy’ as a possible response to physical distancing is somewhat exaggerated. We could suggest that the term is a little lazy, a bit sensationalistic but what if it were more than that, worse, more dangerous than that? The key word might be the word that I have just used, the word ‘conjures’. Sigmund Freud in his Introductory Lecture on Psychoanalysis in 1915 wrote a sentence, the opening words of which were gleefully appropriated by Steve de Shazer and used as the title of the last of his books published during his lifetime, ‘Words were originally magic and to this day words have retained much of their ancient magical power’ (Freud 1915). If you want to reflect further upon this then I would suggest reading de Shazer’s wonderful last book (1994), but here we might reflect briefly on those magical powers.

So how can we think about the operation of this magic without entering a philosophical world of huge complexity? We could surely argue that in most human matters there is more than one way to describe anything that fits equally well with the ‘facts’. Is he stubborn or is he determined? Is she pushy or is she assertive? Are we angry or are we upset? In each case the ‘facts’, such as they are, could fit either description and yet the choice that we make, the word that we allocate will inevitably and potentially radically shift our experience and thus will serve to shape the appropriate response. The relationship between the word and the experience being described is surely not linear, the word merely describing the thing; the relationship between them is more interactive, the word chosen being an integral part of the thing, how we perceive it and thus how we are to respond. So why would any responsible commentator choose to use the phrase ‘stir crazy’, offering this as a possible way of describing our experience? The phrase ‘stir crazy’ implies imprisonment, involuntary incarceration, the experience of which drives us ‘crazy’. Is this a useful idea to offer people at this time?

In addition television commentators potentially legitimate, through their implied authority, alternate constructions of meaning. It may be that until viewers heard the phrase ‘stir crazy’ that it had never occurred to them that their experience might be described in this way. Perhaps they had been describing their experience as feeling ‘cooped up’, perhaps as ‘claustrophobic’, perhaps as ‘bored’. The phrase ‘cooped up’, for example, proposes a very different fitting response compared with ‘stir crazy’; after all it is chickens who live in coops and are therefore ‘cooped up’ and however bored and frustrated a chicken might be feeling, the response that fits with ‘cooped up’ is a great deal less socially challenging than that ‘legitimated’ by ‘stir crazy’!

Solution Focused practitioners have long known the importance of words and of choosing our words with exquisite care; now it might be the turn of the commentariat to remember that what they are doing is participating in meaning-making and that meaning-making can be a very serious business with potentially lethal consequences.

de Shazer, Steve (1994) Words were Originally Magic. New York: Norton.
Freud, S. (1915 – 17) The Complete Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. In J. Strachey (ed. and trans.) The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. (Vols. 15 & 16) New York: Norton.

Evan George
29th March 2020