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What connotations does the word disorder have for a native speaker? Does it sound very negative or rather neutral?

It's still better to describe phenomena such as ADHD as mental illness, but it still sounds too negative to me.

  • Could you indicate more specifically if you're asking about the connotations of the word “disorder” in general, or in a specific context like names for mental illnesses? For example, are you asking about calling them “mental illnesses” vs. “mental disorders”? – Ben Kovitz Feb 13 '15 at 21:54
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It depends significantly on the context.

In terms of ADD and ADHD, the fact that they are abbreviations generally removes any connotation that disorder may hold because ADD and ADHD are very common terms that people have tended to directly associate with the condition in question.

If, however, disorder were to be spelled out in terms of a clinical diagnosis, there might be a small negative connotation, but generally speaking, I do not think it would be very significant.

On the other hand, if you were to say he has a mental disorder, that is very negative and might well be considered to be bordering on rude.

  • Well, disorder is in the acronym when talking about ADD/ADHD. – Ryan Leonard Jan 23 '13 at 21:33
  • Yes—my point was that most native English speakers, however, don't translate "ADD" into "attention deficit disorder"; instead, they translate it directly into their mental concept of ADD. – waiwai933 Jan 23 '13 at 21:34
  • Sure, but if one was to include "disorder" when talking about ADD/ADHD, I'd assume they were trying to stress something, like how it is real, for example, or how it should be accommodated like other mental illnesses are. – Ryan Leonard Jan 23 '13 at 21:36
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In general, the word "disorder" does carry a very negative connotation. For something to be a "disorder", it must not follow the correct "order". This can suggest that it is somehow "unnatural", since it does not follow the "natural order of things". And no one likes to be told they are unnatural.

This is especially the case when referring to a medical disorder. I get the impression that the phrase "mental disorder" is slowly disappearing from medical language, the same way previous phrases thought to be offensive have, such as "mentally retarded".

  • But "disorder" can be used positively, such as a good card to play if someone is disbelieving. – Ryan Leonard Jan 23 '13 at 21:40
  • Can you elaborate on your example? I don't understand what you mean by "a good card to play if someone is disbelieving". And I can't think of any cases in which "disorder" is specifically positive. – Ken Bellows Jan 23 '13 at 21:42
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    Oh, sorry, sort of continuing on my train of thought in my previous comment without realizing, "like how it is real, for example, or how it should be accommodated like other mental illnesses are". A mental disorder isn't positive itself, but for example, stressing that "ADHD is a real mental disorder" may remind someone that it is, and should be taken into account. – Ryan Leonard Jan 23 '13 at 21:48
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    If you are using the accepted medical term to make the topic concrete, I suppose this can perhaps give you a positive outcome, but I do not think the word "disorder" carries a positive connotation even then. In fact, I would say that the negative connotation it carries is the reason you get the positive outcome. Someone hears "disorder" and they think, "Oh, that sounds bad. I'd better take this seriously." – Ken Bellows Jan 24 '13 at 15:30
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The word “disorder” has so many uses in so many contexts, it’s hard to say what kind of connotation it has. In a specific context, though, it can have a specific positive or negative connotation. In the phrase “disorderly conduct”, it suggests drunkenness or being a deadbeat. In the sentence “Entropy is a measure of disorder”, it can suggest interestingness as well as death: zero entropy means adhering to a dull, rigid pattern, too dull and rigid to support life; but death is the result when entropy gets too high, because too much disorder is also incompatible with life.

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