I had dinner earlier this evening with my friend and neighbor Paul Moravec, a composer whose music is mentioned not infrequently in this space. Something you may not know about Paul (other than that he does a terrific impersonation of John Lennon) is that he has a long history of clinical depression, by which I don’t mean occasional periods of moderate melancholy. As he explained in an interview earlier this year with the San Francisco Chronicle, he has “been suicidal, hospitalized twice for clinical depression and, 10 years ago, was treated with electroshock therapy.”
Fortunately, Paul not only survived but prevailed, and even managed to compose a remarkable piece of music, Mood Swings, that was directly inspired by his illness. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize last year, he’s started talking publicly about his successful struggle, and he mentioned at dinner that he’s been struck by the number of people who got in touch with him after reading his San Francisco Chronicle interview in order to tell him of their own experiences with depression. Unlikely as it may seem, many Americans continue to shy away from frank talk about mental illness, and Paul’s correspondents have been going out of their way to praise him for his candor.
Paul said something else that stuck in my mind. He told me that he was troubled by the fact that the word “depression” has come to be used more or less interchangeably to describe both persistent sadness and a form of mental illness so virulent as to be life-threatening. “What we need,” he added, “is a different word for clinical depression–a new word. One that has the same emotional impact as, say, leukemia.”
Deliberate attempts to alter established linguistic usage rarely get anywhere. As every blogger knows, newly coined words must be organically absorbed into the language by way of everyday usage. Some words, like blog itself, catch on quickly because of their simplicity and self-evident utility, whereas too-clever coinages like bleg remain on the fringes of common usage and in time are dropped and forgotten. Still, I think Paul has a point. Clinical depression really is a thing unto itself, qualitatively different from the milder mood disorders that are so frequently lumped together with it. Perhaps we do need a better word for clinical depression, something that more clearly suggests its devastating, incapacitating intensity.
Alas, I have no brilliant ideas, nor am I announcing a word-coining contest. Successful new words are not created by smart people sitting around a cybertable tossing out ideas. On the other hand, the Web is a never-ending demonstration of what has come to be known as the butterfly effect. As Edward Lorenz wrote in the 1963 paper in which he coined the phrase, “One meteorologist remarked that if the theory were correct, one flap of a seagull’s wings would be enough to alter the course of the weather forever.” Perhaps someday we’ll all be using an indelibly vivid word for clinical depression whose coinage can be traced back step by step to this posting, a not quite offhand flap of the wings of an interested party who just happened to have a blog….