Taking issue with “issue”, again.

By Dr David Laing Dawson

Poets choose words for their rhythm and sound as well as their meaning. And for a poet, that can be a meaning implied or suggested, with the rhythm, sound, and suggested meaning creating a whole that invokes a new thought and feeling, or an old thought expressed more cogently.

If a poet were to choose the word “issue” she might choose it for its vowels and sibilants and its suggestion of movement or controversy.

But when we are trying to convey information in an essay, a news article or a political statement the actual meaning of the word chosen is paramount. But that word can be chosen not as a poet might, but rather to obscure, to obfuscate, to euphemize, to negate, and even to simply shore up the speaker’s credentials.

Unfortunately words get used this way and somehow creep into our regular lexicon for decades at a time. And when used this way for a decade, by politicians, reporters and editors, we are all protected from the truth, from factual information about ourselves and others.

The word “issue” is just one of those words. I am tired of hearing it used to obscure or soften reality.

Recently,  two senior Canadian politicians resigned from their positions in order to seek treatment for “addiction issues.” It turns out that one of them may actually be addicted to alcohol or drugs, but even this was an obfuscation of the real problem of “inappropriate sexual activity”. Now even this is a silliness. “Inappropriate sexual activity” is the couple making out in the back seat of the bus from Toronto to Hamilton. But sexual harassment, intimidation, or assault are more than “inappropriate”.

The other, it turns out, has been sexting and sharing nude pics of himself over the internet and got caught in a blackmail scam.

In one of these cases the word “issue” obscures what might be alcoholism or drug addiction. In both of these cases “having issues” and “seeking treatment” obscures some stupid immature behaviour and does a disservice to people who “seek treatment” for actual illness.

We can forgive both of these men for acting in a stupid, immature fashion, but neither should ever be elected to office again. For both of these men there is no treatment beyond someone shouting at them, “For God’s sake, what were you thinking?”

And this is the real problem with constant use of the term “mental health issues”, as in “has” or “is seeking treatment for”:

On one hand it manages to endlessly widen the scope of human follies, behaviours and struggles to which we do not assign personal responsibility, while at the same time obscuring and denying the existence of true, serious mental illness, and conversely and perversely assigning people who suffer from these illnesses personal responsibility for their illnesses.

Both Terry Fox and I have leg health issues. Mine are a problem of aging joints and lack of exercise. His was, of course, cancer.

3 thoughts on “Taking issue with “issue”, again.

  1. The word issues has taken over and has made me want to scream. Along with over use of word stigma.

    I made an appointment to advocate on behalf of the SMI for January ( MPP new one.) i used to accompany families to such appointments as well as have people with the illness say very important things. How many times have I done this in the last 4 decades? I had a very good and thorough discussion with the office help. She knew a lot. But when I mentioned someone on the street and whether she had noticed this one person with trousers falling down all the time. She said she believed she had seen him and that he had issues!!!! Maddening. more on my meeting later. because i intend to bowl the word out. It needs to be addressed front and centre. Thank you for the article. I will take a copy with me along with the Select Committee Report Onwards and upwards !


  2. Let’s pass him a tissue —
    He got screwed on an issue
    Not politically correct,
    Just a character defect.
    Oh now he’s so sorry
    While falling from glory,
    The butt of our laughter.
    Today’s the morning after,
    And tomorrow full of regret.


  3. Bravo David! It is not the evolution but the devolution of language that we witness. And anyone who objects is deemed to be a “nazi” when, at our best, we are custodians of the word–protectors of the music of language from terribly wrong notes.

    The word “issue” refers, I believe, to a subject that comes forth–‘issues’ forth. What it has become is a lame euphemism for the real word –“problem”. Somehow “problem” is not nice any more or is too real–as death is too real and must be referred to as “passing”. Passing what–gas, a truck, grade three? There are now corporate policies that forbid the use of the word death–you MUST say passing.

    I think that the term “sexual assault” does not remotely do justice to the brutality of the act it euphemises–rape! Perhaps rape is also too real a word for the delinquently childish compulsion we are witnessing to sugarcoat and evade the harsh realities of this world.


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