It’s just one page in a magazine of 118.
Just one word in article of roughly 250 others.
But as the mother of a child with epilepsy, it caught my attention.
Of course it did–because of my son and because of the constant battle fighting the stigma that epilepsy garners is.
“Kelly Osbourne: Shocking Health Scare” (People, 25 March 2013) is swathed in purple, the signature color of epilepsy awareness–from the celebrity’s hair color, to the highlight of her name, to the enlarged first letter of the article, to the pull quote from a physician and director of the Epilepsy Center at the University of Cincinnati.
At first glance, the article appears to be the product of thought, even sensitivity.
And then . . .
“Ultimately doctors concluded that the incident was likely a onetime freak episode, and Osbourne was discharged after five days with a clean bill of health.”
And here we go again . . .
Of course, we understand the author’s intent. And of course we know what it meant by the expression “freak episode.” It’s not the denotation I am questioning but rather the connotation.
Every word has a denotation–its dictionary definition. But most also have at least one connotation–an underlying meaning where prejudice and bias reside. If you are responsible with your finances, would you rather be called economical or miserly? If your personality stands out from the crowd, would you opt for the label unique or bizarre? Would you rather your employer call your dress-down Friday look casual or sloppy? If you are at a certain age, would you prefer the adjective mature or old?
You might not prefer either; but if you were forced to choose, you’d probably opt for the first.
Epilepsy is steeped in a history that includes seeing those contending with the condition as “freaks”–as possessed by spirits, the devil even. The word–no matter its contemporary denotation–has no business in an article about epilepsy. Period.
So, with all due respect to the editors of People magazine who may have degrees more advanced than mine or a command of the language I have not yet mastered, may I humbly suggest the following edit: Delete “freak.” And if your own common sense did not lead you to that conclusion, how about consulting the medical expert to which you clearly had access? I’m sure he could tell you the extreme trial walking the planet with epilepsy is and how you–one of the premier purveyors of popular culture–do no one any favors by including such a thoughtless word choice.
Words have meaning and they also have power. My son–and everyone for whom epilepsy is a daily battle–would thank you to use that power if not for good than at least appropriately.
It’s the least you can do.