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What’s in a Name?

what's in a name?I’ve been blogging about obsessive-compulsive disorder for over five years, and for most of that time, I’ve referred to those with OCD as “OCD sufferers.” I’ve felt it was a more respectful way to describe someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as opposed to “an obsessive-compulsive,” which always makes me cringe.

I have noticed, however, that a good number of bloggers I follow who actually have OCD refer to themselves as “obsessive-compulsives” or “OCs.” So what’s correct, respectful, appropriate? Obviously, it depends whom you ask.

There are people who prefer the concept of people-first language, which, simply put, is about putting the focus on people first, not their disability. Attention is given to the whole person, who of course is much more than his or her disability. So, using people-first language, I would say, “the person with OCD,” instead of “OCD sufferer.” Another reason people might feel this is a better choice is that it takes the word “sufferer” out of the equation; to some, being labeled a sufferer might suggest a negative connotation. Conversely, there are people who criticize people-first language because they believe separating the person from whatever disorder they have implies shame and subsequently has the opposite effect of what is intended.

My guess is some people would say I’m splitting hairs here, and as long as we are well-intentioned and treat people with respect, our choice of words shouldn’t matter much. But I do think the words we use, and how we use them, matter. I am a writer, after all, and writers are always searching for the right words to use at the right time.

I think the use of the term OCD is a great example. For those whose lives have been touched by OCD, the flagrant misuse of the term in phrases such as “I’m so OCD,” or “Don’t be so OCD” is not only upsetting to those of us who know better, it also misrepresents what OCD actually is to the general public. This only perpetuates the current misunderstanding of what obsessive-compulsive disorder is actually all about.

Perhaps one of the best illustrations of how powerful word choices can be is seen in this article, where we are shown how the word “the” has the potential to affect meaning. Dr. Paul Summergrad brings up some interesting points: Why is it acceptable for us to say “the mentally ill,” but inappropriate to say, for example, “the gays?” Is it because people who have mental illness are seen as less than us, and thus belong in a different category? Talk about perpetuating stigma!

Needless to say, this paying attention to our words can get quite confusing. And maybe there isn’t even just one right way when it comes to writing about, and addressing, people. For the most part, I have switched to People First Language in my posts, mainly because it feels right to me. Someone else might feel differently, and that’s okay. What matters is that we are all cognizant of our language, as how we address people truly affects the way they are viewed not only by society, but by themselves as well.

Scattered letters photo available from Shutterstock

What’s in a Name?


Janet Singer

Janet Singer’s son Dan suffered from OCD so severe that he could not even eat. After navigating through a disorienting maze of treatments and programs, Dan made a triumphant recovery. Janet has become an advocate for OCD awareness and wants everyone to know that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. There is so much hope for those with this disorder. Janet, who uses a pseudonym to protect her son’s privacy, is the author of Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, published in January 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. Her own blog, www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com, has reached readers in 167 countries. She is married with three children and resides in New England.

APA Reference
Singer, J. (2018). What’s in a Name?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/lib/whats-in-a-name-2/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 25 Jan 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.