Errors and Omissions: Is "Schizophrenic" offensive?

Our legendary pedant surveys the week's most significant mistakes in The Independent, and gives a nod to Evelyn Waugh along the way

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The Independent Online

This is from a news story published last Saturday: “The director tends to shoot a significant amount of material and shape much of it in the editing room.” What the writer meant was “a large amount of material”.“Significant” is one of those words that can simply be struck out on sight. It adds nothing. Everything you write about is significant. If it were not you wouldn’t mention it at all. The only place for “significant” is in the discussion of statistics.

In one of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour novels, a pompous American character is constantly calling things “significant”, prompting the question: “Signifying what?” Quite. Back in the 1940s, Waugh clearly saw “significant” as an unwelcome American import. The passage of 70 years has worked no improvement.

No offence: Occasionally this column must leap to the defence of its colleagues instead of criticising them. This week we published a letter objecting to the following headline, from last Saturday’s magazine: “Don’t make me sound schizophrenic.” The correspondent chided this newspaper: “Schizophrenia is an extremely serious and debilitating illness. The use of the word as a trailer for a trivial article about a Hollywood actress is completely inappropriate. After all, you wouldn’t say, ‘Don’t make me sound spastic’ – or would you?”

Well, no, we wouldn’t, because “spastic” is now a cruel insult. “Schizophrenic” isn’t. Would we run a headline saying “Don’t make me sound psychotic” or “Don’t make me sound paranoid”? Yes, of course we would. There is no general ban on the use of terms from psychiatry in broader descriptive senses. What is it about “schizophrenic” that so often raises politically correct hackles?

Take the veil: Still with Islam, we need to be clear about what is, and what is not, a veil. On Tuesday a picture caption was headed: “First veiled presenter appears on TV.” The picture showed a young woman reading the news on Egyptian state television. Her hair and neck are covered by a voluminous scarf, as mandated by the country’s new Islamic government, but her face is not covered.

Now, the use of the word “veil” in this context is not an offence against English usage as such. If you look up “veil” in a dictionary, you will find that almost any piece of cloth used to conceal anything qualifies. A scarf covering the head and shoulders could certainly be called a veil. But when you read of a “veiled” woman in a Muslim country today you picture a person with her face covered. That is certainly what we mean when we speak of France having “banned the veil”. To use the word in a looser sense is confusing.

Unpersuasive: A DVD review last Saturday spoke of “Emily Blunt as Harriet, a well-heeled consultant who persuades Ewan McGregor’s uptight scientist in a sheikh’s loopy scheme to introduce salmon into the desert of Yemen”. The bits are all there in this Ikea flatpack of a sentence, but how are they supposed to fit together? Is McGregor a scientist in a scheme; is he being persuaded in a scheme (whatever that might mean); or is he being persuaded to introduce salmon? Try adding “to take part” after “scientist”.