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Words are mostly skinny. We choose them quickly and use them often and they work — light and efficient. Some are heavy — when we use them, we approach them slowly and use them carefully.
Then, there are the fat words.
These are the tricky ones because they seem skinny and light, but are actually heavy. Weighty with hidden, loose layers.
On June 4, I was making my morning cup of coffee. The radio was on and the verdict in the Hawera police trial was announced. The officers were ‘‘not guilty’’ of manslaughter.
The presenter of Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report then introduced Chris Cahill, New Zealand Police Association president. They discussed the case and verdict, recapping how 55-year-old Alan Ball had been taken into custody after a family harm incident in 2019 and had been deposited in a Hawera police station cell, like many before him, to sleep it off.
However, Mr Ball had taken codeine and tramadol, along with alcohol, and stopped breathing and died in the night. Several good points were made, including that the burden of evidence was high to prove ‘‘gross neglect’’ for manslaughter and that there was a lack of ‘‘in-person’’ officer training for assessing levels of consciousness . The segment drew to an end.
Then, something made me pause in my coffee-making. It was a fat word.
“The police deal with drunks all the time” Mr Cahill said in his wind-down chit-chat.
I put the kettle down. Something felt wrong, but what? “Drunks” came up and, in particular, how Mr Cahill had used it. Remember, he had said “drunks”. Not “people who are drunk” but “drunks”.
Let me tell you what I mean.
Three months ago, tired and anxious, I stood beside a friend’s bed in the emergency department at Dunedin Hospital. His face was bloody, he smelt heavily of alcohol and was snoring loudly.
The curtains moved and two young men in blue scrubs faced me. One, an orthopaedic registrar (a bone doctor training to be a specialist). My friend awoke and told his story — too much alcohol, a dangerous fall, back and leg pain now. The registrar examined and appeared to listen. Then, I repeated the information my friend had already given, namely that before the fall he had poor balance and couldn’t raise his right foot at the ankle.
The registrar paused, stood taller.
‘‘Really? Oh.’’ He repeated the lower leg exam.
‘‘Aahh, yes you’re right.’’
I left the ED, then and remembered back to a psychiatric ward in 1988.
That day, I was one of the medical personnel, a young doctor-in-training, listening to advice from psychiatric staff to be careful with words. Be wary of referring to patients solely by diagnosis, they advised. This can confine both your and your patient’s thinking, and make it hard to see beyond the diagnosis ‘‘label’’.
In the years that followed, as the workload mounted up, referring to Mrs S with depression in bed 3 and Mr V who had a broken leg in bed 5, gave way to “depression” in bed 3 and “fractured tibia” in bed 5. Still, I thought, I saw the whole picture. But, maybe not.
Thirty-two years later, Dunedin ED 2021 and I finally understood the teaching that day. When I had spoken to the registrar, he had listened to exactly the same words and heard them. I was not ‘‘just a drunk’’. With no fat word labelling me and confining his thinking, the doctor could (literally) stand up, pay attention and see the issues more clearly. Then, he could do a good job.
We humans are so much simpler than we realise. Words are our guide to organise our world and we need that. But words train us, too. We can blindly follow them to familiar destinations; not looking right or left as we go. They were right to warn me of confined thinking and “fat” words, with their hidden layers of meaning, are particularly dangerous.
Re-listening to the broadcast now, I realise how sneaky fat words can be. Mr Cahill had used the word several times before it bothered me:
“Mr Ball was a drunk that needed to sober up
... The reality for police is that every night around the country, there will be drunks in their cells
... The misbelief the Mr Ball would simply wake up, as most drunks do.”
The way Mr Cahill used the word “drunks” in that June 4 radio broadcast was harmful.
The words that came after it, that the police would go forward and learn from the case, were submerged under it. I doubted them. How can you see “drunks” clearly?
Picture “a drunk”.
Then, picture “someone who is drunk”.
Whom are you going to check on more?
- Katherine Richards is a doctor, designer and science communicator who is interested in everything human.