Bonkers, Bedlam and Biscuits, the language of madness

Whilst out and about this morning I caught a bit of Stephen Fry's radio show "Fry's English Delight". This episode was called "That way madness lies" and looked at the "language of madness". Having toyed with the idea of writing a piece about the words and phrases I use to describe my own health issues (mental and physical) I was really interested to hear more.

I've now just finished listening to it all on catch up and already there's so many things I now want to follow up on, guests I want to learn more about and ideas I want to explore further.

I will write my own post about the language I use at some other point but for now, here are some of the ideas, facts, stories and questions I found most interesting from the discussion between Stephen and his guests and I hope you do too.

Double standards and duplication of meaning

Nuts, crazy, bonkers, psychotic, manic; the programme lists these as just some of the words used by many in everyday speech. I think most of us would raise our hands to say we've used at least one of them. Use of these terms is described as "hard to eliminate" as they often reflect how we have looked at madness in the past. Stephen Fry and his guests go on to point out that "that's language for you! Language is a trap" but one that we are "usually able to side step", highlighting that we often understand the origin of these words but that we also understand we tend use them much more frequently in a general sense now., illustrating this with the example of playing "crazy golf" without any thought to meaning "mentally challenged golf".

Gary Nunn

A journalist who writes about language and mental health talked about Dizzy Rascal and the meaning behind his lyrics, explaining "some people think I'm bonkers, but I just think I'm free" shows how he feels liberated and enjoys being "bonkers". He also talked about the original title of the Black Eyed Peas song "let's get it started" which was "let's get retarded" (am I the only one who didn't know this??) apparently as a way to describe the desire to throw the rule book out the window, have a party and get outside the box. Hmmm, I think Gary may need more time than he had to explain that one fully to me.

(Edit: Gary very kindly got in touch with me and shared a link to an article of his which provided a lot more information and insight on our use of language when talking about mental health. Read his article here.)

Jo Brand

As you'll probably know Jo was previously a psychiatric nurse and as someone who relies heavily on using the right language in her current line of work it was interesting to hear her thoughts on this topic. When asked, she agreed that language plays a huge part in dealing with those suffering from mental health issues and looking at treatments, adding that it depends on who's using the language and how much they know and that it used to annoy her when people would use words like "nutter" and jokes such as "roses are red, violets are blue, I'm a schizophrenic and so am I".  (more from Jo, below)

Etymology of the language of madness

I didn't know the history behind these words....

  • The little town of Bethlehem - then Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem, (first to treat mental health in London) - then shortened to Bedlam
  • Initially called "Mad Houses" -  then in early 19th century became known as asylums/retreats to enforce a more positive idea of a place to regroup; a respite - overtime the word asylum became more aligned to the old term "mad house" - once again relabeled towards the end of 19th century as "mental hospitals".
  • Psychiatrists had previously been referred to as "Mad Doctors" in 18th and early 19th centuries.

Jess Thom and her crazy language generating machine

I loved hearing from Jess Thom. Listening to her reminded me of the feeling I had after watching Naomi Peterson at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2016. I left Naomi's show, a musical comedy about her agoraphobia and anxiety, feeling uplifted and informed. (quick side note: this show was one of the inspirations for me to start this blog).

Today, listening to Jess talk about tourettes and her show Biscuit Land (Biscuit being one of the Jess's vocal tics) I also found myself in awe of another person who had embraced something they had previously seen as a "problem" and transformed it into a "power" and something to value. I'm not sure I'm quite there with doing the same with my anxiety and fatigue but I have hope! If Jess can rebrand her tourettes as her "crazy language generating machine" then maybe I too can learn to celebrate and value my own "powers".

Is it okay to laugh?

I know I can sometimes be overly sensible about things and really worry about what is okay to laugh at and what isn't. I'm often teased about things I find offensive being "just a joke" so I was keen to hear others talk about whether it is actually okay to laugh.

Jo Brand talked about how it can be very difficult to "police your own automatic reactions" because a lot of humour is about what is buried very deep inside and what you consider to be taboo. "You know you shouldn't find something funny yet inside you, you do". Whilst an interesting insight I do wish they'd discussed this more, I guess it's something I'll need to look at more elsewhere.

Labels and self description

Both Stephen and Jo talked about how in the past psychiatric professionals had avoided putting labels on patients opting for more generic phrases such as "you're not yourself", or we'll try this course of treatment to help with "these episodes". They both agreed that it's right doctors are taught to avoid using nouns like you are "an asthmatic" which I found particularly interesting having never quite worked out the best way for me to describe some of my own conditions. I remember one person giving me a row for saying "I suffer from..." and others commenting that saying "I have" isn't right either. I'm less concerned about finding the right words for myself but do appreciate that for others the subtle differences in terms used can have  a huge impact on how they view themselves and their health issues so it's something I want to understand more about and get right (or at least feel more comfortable with!).

Mad pride day

I had no idea there was such a thing as Mad Pride Day. In a similar way to other groups in society reclaiming words used against them, some have reclaimed the word mad. Apparently there was also an event in London a few years ago called "Bonkers Fest" which took a celebratory approach to talking about mental health. I would have loved to have seen the opening ceremony which included a cannon firing bananas at the crowd...definitely a bit bonkers! (wait, can I say that??)

I found this episode hugely fascinating and it's given me a lot to think about. My post really doesn't cover the issues discussed in any depth so I would recommend you have a listen to find out more (link below). When it comes to this topic, I know for some their response may be "it's only words" but as Mr Fry himself says "whether we are talking about patients, professionals or places they are treated, all we have are words" so for me wouldn't it be nice if we take care to understand their meaning and their impact? It's certainly something I'm going to give some more thought to and in the meantime I'm off to listen to a bit of Dizzy Rascal and have a biscuit.

Love, as always

Barnet x


If you'd like to listen to the show it's currently on the BBC Radio 4 website -