Language choice is more than a matter of political correctness

Thursday July 04 2019

A police officer reads a copy of the Daily Nation news paper on January 20, 2015 in Nairobi. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


In his usual quick and inventive humour, Prof. X.N. Iraki asks in “The Cutting Edge” of June 24 whether “mad people” have gone digital.

He says: “All over the world, mad men and women used to collect pieces of paper, though it is not clear why. But my daily encounter with paper makes me fear. We are now going digital, with paperless offices and digital currency.

Have mad men and women changed, too? Do they now collect digital items such as mobile phone handsets or computers?”

The remarks were probably made tongue-in-cheek. But they did not amuse some readers.


Wandia Seaforth wrote a two-pronged complaint about the remarks and the professor. Today, I’m dealing only with the first prong of it but will take up the second next week.


“I was rather disturbed to read X.N. Iraki’s observations on mentally ill people. The university don is obviously an educated man and should know better than to write such insensitive remarks,” she says. “Firstly, reference to ‘mad men and women’ is totally unacceptable in this day and age. There is a reason why we have terminology like ‘mentally/physically challenged, mentally ill’ etc. Secondly, what is the point of his question? Is he doing some research and is trying to get information with the least effort? If not, is he trying to be funny? Unfortunately the remarks are not particularly funny.”

Wanjiku Matenjwa also thinks the remarks are politically incorrect. Prof Iraki has a doctorate in economics and management and teaches at the University of Nairobi’s Business School. Dr Matenjwa says she is astounded that “some very educated people” can stigmatise, ridicule and stereotype people suffering from an illness.


Prof Iraki often uses “The Cutting Edge” to make some witty and sometimes profound remarks. I would like to think he was being facetious with the use of the word “mad”. However, language is powerful and can stigmatise, reinforce damaging stereotypes or cause distress and offence to people.

The NMG Stylebook advises against the use of even the phrase “mentally challenged”. It states: “We are all physically or mentally challenged in some way …. Most people with disabilities want to be considered the same as everyone else.”

Calling someone “mad” is not politically correct as it can cause offence and may be inaccurate. It’s better to say “a person with a mental illness”, “a mental health patient” or “a person with a mental health problem”.

“When you say ‘people with a mental illness’, you are emphasising that they aren’t defined solely by their disability.

But when you talk about ‘the mentally ill’, the disability is the entire definition of the person,” according to Darcy Granello, professor of educational studies at the Ohio State University. She is a co-author of a recent study on how language can stigmatise people with mental health problems.


In the media, it’s more appropriate to say somebody “has a mental illness” than “is mentally ill”. Certainly, the media shouldn’t use insensitive terms like “crazy”, “insane”, “psycho”, “nuts”, “deranged” or “mad” to describe someone who may have a mental illness.

Language, indeed, matters. The study which Prof Granello co-authored, “The Power of Language and Labels: ‘The Mentally Ill’ Versus ‘People With Mental Illnesses”, published in The Journal of Counselling & Development Research (Vol. 94, No. 1, January, 2016), found that participants showed less tolerance towards people who were referred to as “the mentally ill” when compared to “people with mental illness”.

Prof Granello says the study findings suggest that language choice when referring to a person with a mental illness is not simply a matter of political correctness. “This isn’t just about saying the right thing for appearances,” she says. “The language we use has real effects on our levels of tolerance for people with mental illness.”

I’m sure Prof Iraki, who comments waggishly on everything under the sun — from school uniforms and Facebook friends to riparian buildings and bumps on superhighways — is listening.

Send your complaints to [email protected] Call or text 0721989264