Caveman Logic

A look at the scary and entertaining ways in which our primitive minds are mismatched to the modern world around us.

Clinical Psychologists are Destroying the Language

Verbifying has gotten out of control


My friend works in a university psychology department. About once a month they have a faculty meeting, which is the only time all these psychologists get together. For those of you who don’t realize it, we psychologists can be very different critters from each other. We study different things and we often talk differently. It’s the “talk” part I’m writing about today.

My friend jokingly tells me that the non-clinicians at the table can distinguish themselves from the clinicians because of all the “verbifying” the clinicians do. He wonders how and when they learned to talk that way - as if it were some linguistic badge of identity - and whether they even hear themselves doing it. The non-clinical psychologists, who far outnumber their clinician colleagues, listen bemusedly as the clinicians routinely take nouns, add “ing” to the end of them, and use them as if they were real verbs. Examples are all over the place and some of them have even begun to creep into normal English. One of the first to appear was “pleasuring,” a word that now turns up on TV talk shows. Clinicians also talk about “partnering,” “truthing,” “husbanding” and “presencing.”

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That’s what I mean by verbifying. I admit it; “verbifying” is not a real word either. It is as fake, as invented, as “presencing” and all the other neologisms that pour out of clinician’s mouths when they talk. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that clinicians are consciously speaking in code or uttering these words as a conspicuous sign of group identity, but they might as well be. When they speak words like “truthing” or “presencing,” the listener either knows he is in the presence of a kindred spirit (the in-group) or knows he is on the outside. Verbifying is a reliable cue to group identity and a whole lot of other professional beliefs and vocabulary.

Here’s a quick grammar lesson to illustrate how verbifying works: In normal English you can tell if something is a verb because it comes with an infinitive – for example, to fight or to laugh. We can take that verb form and turn it into what’s called a gerund by adding “ing” to it. We end up with fighting or laughing. All that is considered correct. It appears in English Grammar books and it is taught to our kids.

But it is not permissible to add “ing” to everything in sight. In particular, you can’t take nouns, words like truth, for example, then add “ing” to them, and come up with a made-up verb like “truthing.” Unless, of course, you’re a clinical psychologist. Then you get to do anything you please with language, especially if you have your students and colleagues around you who are also talking about how their patients are “truthing.”

Right here I have to stop and admit that not all “clinical psychologists” do this. There’s actually a subgroup of clinicians who are not your grandfather’s Freudians. They talk about “self-growth” and mindfulness and emphasize issues like “being conscious” and taking personal responsibility. Its roots can be traced to Albert Ellis’ “Rational Emotive Behavior.” Within Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) there is actually a reason for verbifying: it forces the patient to take “ownership” of what’s going on, rather than seeing himself as a passive victim. Consider an anxious patient who imagines herself beset by catastrophes. When CBT verbifies that noun, it suggests that the patient is catastrophizing; not that events are inherently catastrophic. That’s a useful therapeutic distinction.

But there is a limit to what can or, for that matter, needs to be verbified. I’m suggesting that some clinical psychologists have lost the ability to make that distinction. They’re so caught up in verbifying that they do it routinely, whether or not it provides any therapeutic utility. It has simply become a linguistic tic of the trade. It is precisely this quirky use of language that gets the attention of non-clinicians in an academic setting and it is the point of my article. Again, I am not saying that all clinical psychologists do it, but when you hear someone in a psychology department verbifying, it is likely to be a clinician.

A couple of questions come immediately to mind. Does this pattern happen in other languages? Do French clinicians or German ones also verbify? Are they also so cavalier with the structure of their native language? Another question: Why are clinical psychologists so prone to this linguistic oddity? They are not all CBT specialists who are concerned with “ownership of our thoughts and feelings.” Obviously, part of the answer is that they hear each other do it and it’s contagious as hell. In terminology suggested by Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore, verbifying has become a meme: a cultural thing like a tattoo or a popular song or slogan that catches on. It spreads like wildfire and nobody questions it. How it started is another matter; it’s like asking “Who first hummed that tune.”

It is curious that there is immunity to verbifying among non-clinical psychologists. You just don’t hear it among those who practice social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, sensory psychology, industrial/organizational psychology, ethology, animal learning and cognition, evolutionary psychology and just about any other sub-discipline I can think of. But among clinicians, stand back!

People from outside this culture hear (or see) it and say, “What the hell! How did that get here?” Don’t forget that every one of these verbifiers grew up in the real world long before they decided to become clinical psychologists. What was their own transition to verbifying like? Was there not a time when they thought, “What the hell does husbanding mean. It’s not English as I learned it. It sure sounds odd.” But then they started verbifying, and maybe they made up a few of their own. Nobody questioned them and they were accepted in the community. Group identity was bestowed upon them. That’s a powerful force, and one not to be trifled with. Any ability or inclination to hear verbifying as odd or even wrong probably vanished long ago.

Recently I attempted to discuss this issue with one of my clinical colleagues. I didn’t get very far before he turned to me and asked, “Why don’t you like my languaging?”

Some years ago my then-partner and I had raised some pet ducks and when her father came to visit us, he asked – quite humorously – “Will you be ducking this summer?” It was a clever joke. He knew it and we knew it. We all laughed. We all knew that “to duck” (meaning to have pet ducks) was not a verb. It was an early, self-consciously wrong use of verbifying.

What goes on today is neither clever nor comic. It has become part of in-group language. That means it identifies and excludes, whether or not it was intended for that purpose. It’s certainly true that cognitive neuroscientists sitting around the table at a faculty meeting are also free to corrupt the English language in the manner chosen by their clinical colleagues. But (thankfully) they don’t. They walk out smiling and shaking their heads.

No less an authority than the cartoon characters Calvin & Hobbs have dealt with the issue of verbifying (Calvin calls it “verbing.”) He observes that “Verbing weirds language,” to which Hobbs replies “Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.”

As an outsider, I find these neologisms jarring and pretentious. I hate to stand by idly while a specialized in-group invents or subverts the rules I learned that define my native language. Remember, it’s not all of us who do it. It’s just this visible minority in the psychology department, or at conferences.

It’s not that I can’t understand what they’re saying. Meaning is still being conveyed, albeit somewhat sloppily. But is that really enough?

As the clinicians would tell me, “That’s your stuff. Go heal your own wound and leave me alone.” They’re probably right, although this kind of response from a clinician can be used to deflect any form of criticism, no matter how valid it is. Anyway, they’re right. It is my stuff. But it’s also my language.


Illustration by: Athena Gubbe

Thanks to: Scott Parker; Fran Grove-White; Yana Hoffman


Hank Davis, Ph.D, is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada and the author of nine books.

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