About thingamajigs and filling up

If you know what you’re doing, you don’t need a name for it.

“Has anyone seen my thingamajig – you know! – my whatchamacallit?” It’s a universal cry. But if you can remember where you put your thingamajig, it doesn’t matter to you or to anyone that you can’t remember what it’s called.

If you know what you’re doing, you don’t need a name for it.

But if you don’t know where to look for your thingamajig, what to do about it, then a good name for it is very useful.

Human beings naturally like having words, names and labels for everything – words that work better than ‘thingamajig’ and ‘whatchamacallit’. When we’re involved in important complex projects, then it’s even more important to use the right words in the right places.

Words can be banners

Words come and go naturally as people and cultures want to use them. Dictionaries eventually put new words in and take disused words out. Normally there’s little fuss. People use the word or they don’t. The label finds its own level of usefulness: a brand name to sell or buy, a recipe for cooking, a technical communication among specialists, a request to help you find your keys. … “Oh, your keys! Yeah, I saw them on the bedside table.” “Great! Thanks. You’re a life-saver!”

But sometimes a name becomes a banner or even a weapon … and it’s not just an advertising campaign for the newest smartphone or for Christmas. People attach definition and persuasive power to their label so it becomes a banner under which to recruit support, followers, funds, belief and action. The banner waves you to the team to support, the cause or political party to join, the proof, publicity and prevention of some new scourge.

Like ordinary words, big banner names may fade.  Once the battle has been won, awareness raised, the scourge defeated, the banner can be put away. Old diseases die out and new ones emerge; burning witches modernises into Twitter storms; muddy roads and dirty trains give way to polluting traffic and planes. The powerful banner name serves its purpose to become history. Or it may live on, find new mileage, new meanings, in cultural and historical memory.

Let’s look at one of these campaigning banner names. What do we need it for? What don’t we need it for?

A war about a name

For some decades now, there has been a war about this label: Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS). That’s become the common name for a family relationship pattern when, after separating, one parent turns a child against the other parent without good reason.

For some reason, it’s mainly professional classes who deny this well-known pattern … or at least, they dismiss that label for it. The many assumptions people make help to understand what underpins this war. The pattern is not gender-specific, but the battle is polarised along gender lines so that some see it as unscientific and a cover up for separated men to continue their abuse of their ex- and their children. Battling back under the banner of PAS, sufferers and professionals show the pattern is not simply gendered, that there is lots of scientific evidence, that it fits with all kinds of knowledge about the extreme distress of separated close relationships, that it is significant in family law cases, and that the harm caused to children is emotional abuse (psychological maltreatment). Some countries have made PAS a crime. Many talk as if Personality Disorder itself could be a crime as well (when it cannot be).

Anyway, this PAS banner is an example of a battle over labels if ever there was one. To keep the peace, most people drop the word ‘syndrome’, making it just a pattern or process or outcome: Parental Alienation. Some have argued that it is already a proper category under other labels related to emotional abuse and attachment theory. People have fallen out even though they’re on the same side, fighting for the same PA cause. It’s like in the film, The Life of Brian, where there is a heated dispute between “The People’s Front of Judea (PFJ)” and “The Judean People’s Front (JPF)”, even though they are united in opposing the Romans.

Here’s a metaphor that might help explain how, yes, the label can be really important, but also, no, we can see what’s happening and cut straight to the chase. The name can be both useful and also not needed. This metaphor is an imaginary problem for which we all know a better answer already.

Another way to fill up on fuel

Imagine a world where drivers don’t fill up their own vehicles with fuel. There are no filling stations at the side of main roads. There are no fuel gauges on the dashboard. Everyone drives until they run out of fuel. Then the driver calls up fuel delivery services to come and fill their tank up. These services make sure they are prompt and user-friendly. This is the accepted and normal way to do it. No one protests. If anyone did protest, the fuel deliverers would rise up in arms to lobby and protect the system and their jobs. Alternatives would require prohibitive change in vehicles and road-side facilities. Higher taxes and enforced development plans would mean wider resistance from public and government too.

But the problem is the increasing snarl up on the roads: thousands of cars and lorries standing along all our roads with drivers calling and waiting for the services to get through the standstill to fill the vehicles up with fuel.

Those who were bothered about this madness might make this into a defined label, perhaps, the Outa-Gas or Petrol Absent Syndrome. Yes, they might argue about the label. Research would follow on the incidence of OG / PAS cases, showing the extent of what was wrong, how inefficient and harmful this was. The evidence would show the need for change. It would be a basis for proposed solutions. So, naming this thingamajig would help the cause of raising awareness and tackling it, wouldn’t it?

But for those – like you, dear reader – who already see the thingamajig clearly, it’s blindingly obvious what the problem is, what the solution should be. It’s obvious there’s a better way than roads littered with vehicles waiting for fuel to arrive. The answer needs awareness, but not so much about the problem (in this example, everyone would know about the problem already); it’s awareness of a better system people would need. One, a few, and then lots of people would promote a new world where: drivers would learn to think ahead and fill up their own vehicles, vehicle manufacturers would install fuel gauges, and filling stations would get planned and built along the roads.

It’s so obvious isn’t it when you know? We don’t need to give it a name at all. We don’t need to invent the syndrome or to research and campaign about the problem. We may need to campaign about the solution. But running out of fuel could be so rare – it IS rare – so the label, OG / PAS, fades away. Those who do get caught short probably suffer some other mechanical problem that they didn’t know about: a broken fuel pipe, a faulty dial, something else entirely. That more specific problem would be the focus. The fuel deliverers would upgrade their skills and job to do road side repairs not refuelling.

If you know what you’re doing, you don’t need a name for it.

Different labels and purposes

The point of this example is that the usefulness of labels needs to be worked out for the level of usefulness you’re working with. Returning from the imaginary world of no filling stations to the real world of tackling ‘PAS’, you’re not going to learn much about Parental Alienation / Syndrome if you don’t Google those words. You may or may not want to use the label in the title of a publication or an event – those who dismiss it will read no further. Research may require precise terms and definitions. You may use other non-PA labels instead. Maybe your profession or your country’s family law system only give credence to things with a concrete label.

“The Judean People’s Front?! Ha! We’re the People’s Front of Judea!”

But what if people – at least the key people – can see the problem and the change that is needed, without the label, the banner, the research, the campaigning, and the battles?  If you know where you can find your thingamajig then you can go straight for the change you need, by-pass the problem and its causes without the fight about the name. If there is a way for oppressed Judeans to get together to tackle the Romans, why not cut to the chase and avoid the battle between PFJ and JPF?

To summarise: The thingamajigs called Parental Alienation / Syndrome, Personality Disorder and so on may need powerful banner labels for some places and purposes. At the very least, you need the name to signpost resources. Talking about it shows you do know that it is an important thingamajig, perhaps that you have some expertise or service in this area.

But if you can see what’s needed to make for a better system, the filling stations, then maybe you don’t need those special labels. Maybe we’re all fighting the Romans, so we can team up together. Maybe there are different labels to use – ones that are already in use and already have authority and power to make things happen in the relevant systems. Maybe Attachment Science or Emotional Abuse (aka Psychological Maltreatment) or Coercive Control are sometimes more useful kinds of label.

The moral

Labels and banners can be essential. Other labels may be better. But if you know what you’re doing, you may not need a special name for it.


Nick Child, Edinburgh

About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink and family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

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