The proper terminology to use when writing about illness

April 7, 2015

Common phrases often become so, um, common that we repeat them even when they are not accurate or have the potential to offend.

We’ve discussed why “gyp,” “Indian giver,” “schmuck,” and the like can be considered offensive, and Native Americans continue to battle to have the offensive word “squaw” removed from place names. Even the government had “Operation Wetback” in the 1950s, seeking to deport Mexicans who came into the United States illegally. That would not pass muster today.

The landscape can be tricky. Using the “n-word” in rap is all but de rigueur, but it can be considered a hate crime if used inappropriately. And the word “queer” is an acceptable adjective (“the queer community”), but its use as a noun is offensive unless in the context of someone self-identifying that way.

As a society, we’ve gotten better at accepting terminology that is less slur and more description: “Developmentally disabled” is better than “retarded,” and while “physically challenged” is still not as common as “handicapped,” it’s thankfully more common than “crippled” nowadays. We mention that a child is “adopted” less often, and usually only when it’s relevant.

Where we often fail, though, is in using terms associated with illness and infirmity. “Confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound” have appeared more than 1,000 in Nexis in the first quarter of the year. Yet those give a negative associate to the person in the wheelchair. Simpler, and more accurate, would be to say someone “uses a wheelchair.” Even better, say why the wheelchair is needed: “She has used a wheelchair since she her legs were paralyzed in a diving accident 10 years ago.”

We often say someone “suffers” from an illness. That also raises negative connotations. Not that people don’t suffer from illnesses; but to associate “illness” and “suffering” turns a person into a victim. Better to say someone “has cancer” or “has been living with multiple sclerosis for years.”

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“Victim” is another trigger word when applied to illness or infirmity. Many people don’t consider themselves “victims,” though lawyers often paint them that way, and diseases don’t target people the way criminals do. The simple description is always better: “She was born with spina bifida” is more straightforward than “She was a victim of spina bifida.”

Many usage authorities prefer to say that someone “got a cancer diagnosis,” not “was diagnosed with cancer.” When the disease is diagnosed instead of the patient, the disease stands apart from the person. Associating people with their illnesses, limitations, or infirmities can give readers a false impression of the person, playing the “pity card” unintentionally. If the illness or infirmity has nothing to do with why you’re writing about someone, give a second or third thought as to whether you need to mention it at all. If you do, apply words that address the condition, not the person.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.