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Please Stop Saying "Bipolar" When You Mean Unpredictable or Broken

When there is a change in temperature, it’s not unlikely to hear people complain of “bipolar” weather. When technology isn’t working properly or when something is unpredictable, a frustrated and uninformed person might call it bipolar. 

Using bipolar as an adjective to describe an inanimate object that the person is unhappy with is sadly common. Here are 15 objects that members of our audience have overheard someone call “bipolar”:

1. Erratic weather

2. GPA that fluctuates

3. Car that won’t start

4. Inconsistent shower water temperature

5. Flickering lights

6. Pen that won’t write

7. Photocopier that keeps jamming

8. Cell phone that doesn’t have signal

9. Batteries that lost their charge quickly

10. Weed whacker that won’t start

11. Washing machine that turns off mid-cycle

12. Ovens that won’t maintain their set temperature

13. Music when an artist ranges from pop to serious

14. Hairstyle that constantly switches

15. Flight schedule that changed unexpectedly 

Bipolar disorder is a serious medical condition that affects around 60 million people worldwide.  People with bipolar disorder experience a pattern of depressive and manic or hypomanic episodes. The episodes last for days or weeks and involve a list of symptoms that affect a person’s mood, energy levels, and ability to function. It’s not the same as being moody or unpredictable.

When you use the word bipolar to describe something broken, you are implying that people with bipolar are broken. Someone with bipolar disorder or another mental illness who overhears you can feel ashamed and may be less likely to be open about what they are dealing with. This silence and shame prevents people from seeking help when they need it. 

Bipolar literally means, “having two poles.” Some argue that this is why they use it to describe objects that have two extremes. While it is semantically correct to use it as an adjective this way, it can still be harmful. Yes, we use human qualities to describe inanimate objects when we make certain points, but we should draw the line at diagnostic terms. The same way you would not use the word retarded to describe things that are slow. 

Make an effort to stop using the word bipolar this way. There are plenty of other words to choose from that will more accurately express what you mean:

1. Unpredictable

2. Unreliable

3. Inconsistent

4. Frustrating

5. Ridiculous

6. Temperamental

7. Finicky

8. Annoying

9. Difficult

10. Needs to be recalibrated

11. Flippant

12. Fluctuating

13. Oscillating

14. Erratic

15. All over the place 

On a positive note, two people we asked said they had never heard someone use the word bipolar when describing something moody or temperamental. By spreading awareness, hopefully it will become less acceptable and we will continue to have people who never hear it used incorrectly.

Comments

I have never heard anyone refer to objects as BiPolar.

I have never heard bipolar used that way either. Maybe something regional?

I also have never heard "bi-polar" used in relation to inanimate or non-human objects, and I have never used the term that way.

I dislike a 12 step program who uses the word insane incorrectly in their readings . the program States doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is insane. That is not what insane means

Does anyone else get tired of words like "insane," "crazy," "nuts," "whacko" being used in everyday language? I would LOVE an essay on that so that I can send it to everyone on my email list. I agree - language matters!!

All. The. Time. And I usually respond with the good intention of educating and promptly stick my foot in my mouth.

I'm actually doing a paper on it now

Saying something "is cancer" is the vernacular in some circles. It means something is terrible. The absolute worst. Because cancer is terrible. I don't think you'd have a cancer patient disagree with you or be offended either.

I have heard people refer to others as "bipolar" when in fact that person has no such diagnosis, or say of a particular behavioral act, "Well, that's just bipolar" - and so forth. I have also heard professionals (who should know better) describe groups (of people who actually are quite individual) and nicely pigeon-hole them all as being "Borderlines", or "Bipolars" or whatever. It is very annoying.
Would they want others to say "That's really diabetic!"? OR of some action or situation "How cancerous!"? How about, "All you knee replacements are alike!!"
Aaargh.

Me too! I hate hearing people refer to other people as having bipolar when that person is acting erratically. I hear that more than bipolar being used with inanimate objects.

To the people that say that they've never heard people refer to objects as "bipolar", it very well could be the fact that this kind of language is so commonplace that you don't even notice it. It's sort of like how if you cuss a lot, you don't really notice how often you cuss until you get into a situation where you absolutely cannot.

I guess that is what happens when you use a word already in the dictionary. It's used by weather forecasters on occasion.

Read the ending: "On a positive note, two people we asked said they had never heard someone use the word bipolar when describing something moody or temperamental."
I hear this a lot - Crazy bipolar weather in Colorado! Don't mind that lady she's bipolar (someone just a little odd). "Ugh my hair is so bipolar!" Just because you haven't heard it, doesn't mean it's not subtly said ALL the time. Please share. And THANKS for writing this!

I have heard it used most with the weather changes. Unfortunately it was by those who help care for those with mental illnesses. It was very discouraging.

I hear this a lot, actually, and it doesn't really bother me. I get the problem, sure, and on the wrong day I would definitely be offended. I usually kinda roll my eyes and move on. I can't change the entire world right now, and I'm at peace with that. Also, it makes sense! Hot and cold are opposites. Sometimes the weather has been bipolar lately. It could be an opportunity to say, "Yep, it's a perfect picture of what I struggle with," or something similar. Sometimes meanings of words evolve and we can't always stop it.

I have not really heard "bi-polar" used in relation to non-human objects. But I have heard it being used loosely with young persons who are diagnosed with ADHD.

I have heard people who were a bit goofy or indecisive called bi-polar. Because a person is silly or off does not mean they have been diagnosed as bi-polar. A person who is diabetic has a specific diet problem. A person who is diagnosed bi-polar has a specific chemical imbalance or behavior problem. Slang use for a person who is not diagnosed by a doctor is not appropriate.

Also, PLEASE quit saying "he/she is bipolar" or "I'm bipolar". Think about it. You would never say, "I'm cancer" or "I'm bronchitis". You HAVE bipolar. Having bipolar does not define a person. It is not who that person IS, it is something they HAVE. I always say that I have bipolar because I am not defined by that illness anymore than someone who has another illness. Just something to consider.

In a restaurant, online, in a grocery store... It is hurtful. Please stop.

To be fair, the word "bipolar" does have two definitions. One referring to the psychological disorder and the other referring to extremes.

This is exactly it. Bipolar weather is an accurate use of the word. It's when weather goes from one extreme to the other.

The primary definition of bipolar is "having or relating to two poles or extremities." So technically, bipolar disorder is a secondary use of the word bipolar. Our planet is bipolar (it has two poles) and bipolar weather totally exists (in places like florida where it is raining one minute and sunny the next). Even people can be bipolar without actually BEING bipolar, simply by exhibiting two extremes, like being super awake one moment and super tired the next. Though I agree we shouldn't use mental illness as slang (like OCD or schizo), bipolar is it's own word. Yes, if someone kept saying they had bipolar DISORDER, that would be incorrect and rude. But unlike OCD or schizophrenia, bipolar doesn't just reference a psychiatric illness and people using it for what it is is not against any rules, and they don't need to stop if they are using it correctly.

Nah, think I'll keep saying it.

Wow, I've been saying the weather is bipolar. Thanks for this info.

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