Tag Archives: language change

COBUILD English Usage 4th Edition: Mental Health and Disability

In our fourth blog post about the new edition of COBUILD English Usage, Julie Moore looks at some more of the changes in language usage that emerged from research for the new edition. In this post, she explores how language shifts reflect changing ideas about mental health and disability.

As I identified in my last post, our survey of current usage for the new edition of COBUILD English Usage uncovered evidence that new words, new combinations of words and new uses have developed in recent years to better describe the diversity that exists in contemporary society. In this post, I explore this idea of diversity and inclusion further, looking at the areas of mental health and disability.

When researching the topic of language and mental health, the most striking change is the frequency with which it’s now talked about. Having been a relatively taboo topic just a few years ago, the phrase mental health has more than doubled in frequency when you compare the older Bank of English section of the Collins Corpus with the ‘New Monitor’ corpus (which contains recent material from news and social media websites). There’s also evidence of a slight increase in the use of the phrase mental ill health reflecting a recognition that all of us have varying degrees of mental health in the same way that we have different degrees of physical health. This can be seen as part of normalizing the topic of mental health and removing the previous stigma.

One in five Australians experience mental ill health in any year.

In general, women are more likely than men to seek professional help for mental ill health.

When talking about anyone with a health condition, be that mental or physical, most groups of people and the charities which represent them advocate referring to the person first and then the condition or disability. For example, they advocate referring to a person experiencing mental health issues or a person with a disability rather than a mental patient or a disabled person.

Completely new words have sprung up too around the idea of normalizing people who were previously ‘othered’ or seen as in some way ‘abnormal’. Among the autistic community, for example, people who are not autistic – and would previously have been labelled ‘normal’ – are now referred to as neurotypical. And people with autism are informally referred to as being on the spectrum (short for ‘the autistic spectrum’), a conversational expression that indicates more ease around talking about autism.

Too many studies concerning autism and empathy are designed by neurotypical researchers.

Most people on the spectrum have incredible focus and imagination.

The world of sport has also provided a flurry of new terms using the prefix para– to refer to sports people with disabilities.  Although the Paralympics – a parallel event to the Olympics for athletes with disabilities – has been around for many years, in recent years, para-sport has developed a higher profile and with greater coverage has come more widespread use of terms like para-athlete, para-cycling, para-swimming, etc.

It seems to have become increasingly socially unacceptable to label anyone who doesn’t conform – because of their gender identity, sexuality, mental or physical health – as ‘other’ or ‘abnormal’.  This has led to a need for more diverse, less loaded language to refer both to varied types of individuals and groups (gender-fluid, on the spectrum, para-athlete) and new terms to better talk about those who were previously described by default using language that benchmarked them as ‘normal’ (cisgender, neurotypical).

COBUILD English Usage 4th Edition: Gender and Identity

In the next two blog posts about the new edition of COBUILD English Usage, Julie Moore looks at some of the changes in language usage that emerged from research for the new edition. In this post, she explores how language shifts reflect changing ideas about gender and identity.

Traditionally, identify has been used predominantly as a transitive verb; you identify someone or something:

Police identified the man from CCTV images.

We correctly identified several of the plants.

Our survey of current usage for the new edition of COBUILD English Usage has shown that a new use has become widespread within the past 10 years; identify as something meaning to view yourself as a member of a particular group. The ‘something’ can describe an ethnic, cultural, religious or political group: identify as a feminist / liberal / Arab / Christian / atheist

Most markedly though, people identify as something in terms of their gender or sexuality, reflecting that this categorization is no longer seen by many as fixed or given, but a personal choice.

Teenagers who do not identify as male or female will be able to opt out.

Sam began identifying as a woman four years ago.

This and similar developments reflect the wider concerns of a society as it progresses and adapts to the modern social climate.

Gender, in particular, has seen a proliferation of new terms to describe a range, or spectrum, of possible gender identities including gender-neutral, gender-fluid and non-binary gender. New words have also emerged to distinguish these new identities from traditional concepts of binary gender or cisgender.

When it comes to sexuality, many people will be familiar with the LGBT acronym which has been used for many years to refer to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities. This has been extended over recent years to encompass and recognize more groups; LGBT + Q (queer) + I (intersex) + A (asexual). There is sometimes also a + sign added at the end to recognize other possible groups.

In a more gender-fluid society though, the question of gendered pronouns still seems to remain unsettled. While there have been attempts to introduce new gender-neutral pronouns (such as ze or xe), our survey suggests that these remain somewhat limited in use, appearing mostly in discussions specifically about gender-neutral pronouns or within relatively small communities. More widespread  is the use of they/them. They has long been used as a gender-neutral pronoun to refer to any person:

If anyone has any questions, they can ask me later.

It is now, however, becoming more commonly used to refer to a specific individual who identifies as gender-neutral:

Jo lives in London. They work in marketing.

All these possible new labels and uses can seem like something of a minefield for anyone who is unsure about the best way to address or refer to different groups of people. To get around this issue, another new trend has emerged for individuals to signal how they prefer to be addressed. An increasing number of people are showing their preferred pronouns as part of their social media profile (e.g. Jo Bloggs (she/her) @jobloggs) or face to face via preferred pronoun badges (or ‘pins’).