Thank you to Flip Flops Every day for the idea of the Manic Monday Challenge, in which one must use a chosen song title in one’s post. And yes, I know that this is being posted at 8am on Tuesday, but I’m writing it on Monday evening, so it still counts. Here we go…
The first thing that came to mind when I asked myself what I might write about related to the song “Manic Monday,” was the word manic. I wondered if it would be possible for a popular band to release a song with that title nowadays, without any controversy. It’s a word that’s had an interesting history. It came into English in the 14th century, referring to a mental derangement characterised by excitement and delusion, and derived from the Greek mania, simply meaning madness. For a long time, it was used solely as a psychiatric term. But as is so often the case with a serious term, people got used to it over time, and it lost some of its gravity. By the time of the 1960s, people could refer to Beatlemania without ever considering that they were using a genuine psychiatric term.
Of course by that time people had been using other words related to mental health quite casually. And we still do. Consider how we might romantically say that we’re mad about someone, or how in irritation, we might say that something drives us crazy. I find how we use these words very interesting. On one hand, we’re aware of their meaning, their reference to actual mental illness, because that meaning is part of what we want to communicate. It’s not like we’re using them in a completely different way. But on the other hand, we’re not using them with the same charge as if we were using them seriously. Most of us would probably never dream of actually using words like mad or crazy to refer to someone with mental health issues. There’s a strange tension between the fact that we use them so casually with a slight consciousness of their meaning, and the fact that we’d never use them in seriousness. I suppose the obvious answer is that they’ve just become so entrenched in the language that when we use them, we use them as though they’re not related to mental health, even though they’re use is based on mental health. We compartmentalise the different ways to use them. In one part of our brain is the conscious knowledge that they’re outdated, offensive terms to refer to people with mental health problems. And another part of brain leaps instinctively to use these terms in everyday conversation without stopping to consider whether they might be offensive.
Of course mad and crazy aren’t so problematic, because at least they’re not so often used seriously to actually refer to people much anymore. Manic and mania are more interesting though, because they’re more related to the specific condition of manic depression. This is a condition that is becoming more often diagnosed, and that people are now more aware of than before. And perhaps it’s no coincidence that we don’t often use –mania as a suffix anymore, or use manic as a casual adjective. The more aware we are of the possible hurt the casual use of a term might cause, the more careful we are about using it, generally.
Of course there are those who aren’t so sensitive in how they use language. And they often centre their arguments in favour of the use of offensive terms around the language of mental and physical development. The word retarded is a classic example. Most people accept that it’s an offensive, insulting term, but there are always those who claim it’s ok to use it because in the past it was a genuine scientific term. This is further complicated by the fact that the term was used seriously until more recently in American English than in other dialects. And yes, it was a genuine scientific term, but the important word there is was. Words change their meaning all the time. In this case the meaning hasn’t changed, so much as the connotation. And that came about, like with mad and crazy, because the word became normalised over time, and came to be used informally. Only with retarded, it was used in a more pejorative, aggressive sense, and over time that meaning came to dominate over other possible connotations.
I always get annoyed when people bring up the But it was a real term in the past! argument, because it’s so disingenuous to just ignore all the evolution of the term that’s occurred between its earliest use and how it’s used now. All I can think is that these people just want free rein to insult people however they want, and look for any excuse to legitimise their behaviour, and pretend they’re not looking to offend. Most reasonable people though, I like to think, understand that the connotations of words can change over time, and adapt how they speak to reflect that. So while I don’t think that manic is entirely an offensive term at the moment, I wonder if in a few years it’ll be taboo to release a cover version of “Manic Monday.” But at least then we won’t have much cause to complain, because we’ll still have the original term, and we can be mature enough to acknowledge that it was from the less-enlightened time of the 1980s, and The Bangles doubtless meant no offence.