Word salad is not ‘disorganized thought and speech’: Doing things to people with language use

Earlier this year I was lecturing about the contexts for language use and thought (unsaid language responses) and gave students a well-known, real example of word salad.  The example was taken from a textbook illustrating ‘disorganized thought and speech’ from the ‘schizophrenia spectrum’ symptoms.  I first asked them to analyse it.

So you try this first, before I continue.  Analyse this, or what are your thoughts?

Interviewer: Have you been nervous or tense lately?

John: No, I got a head of lettuce.

Interviewer: You got a head of lettuce? I don’t understand.

John: Well, it’s just a head of lettuce.

Interviewer: Tell me about the lettuce.  What do you mean?

John: Well, . . . Lettuce is a transformation of a dead cougar that suffered a relapse on the lion’s toe. And he swallowed the lion and something happened. The . . .see, the . . . Gloria and Tommy, they’re two heads and they’re not whales. But they escaped with herds of vomit, and things like that.

(Neale & Oltmanns, 1980)


The class proceeded to analyse in the ways I had urged them not to (my teaching was obviously a total failure ☹ ):

  • interpreting what the person (speaking the word salad) really meant
  • what was the person trying to express?
  • what was the person trying to communicate?
  • what was the person trying to refer to?
  • what was the person trying to represent?

Which is exactly what the textbook did and what our life training leads us to do.


Instead, we must always focus on what the different uses of language do to people, and the consequences of these listener effects on the speaker’s future behaviour and relationships.

I then got the class to think about some possible CONTEXTS for this poor person:

  • trapped in an asylum
  • obviously with many life conflicts they cannot deal with yet
  • obviously not being helped to deal with their conflicts any better
  • constantly being asked stupid questions by pompous and authoritarian clinicians
  • being expected to say all the normal boring and superficial things of good middle-class conversation
  • having to tell them that everything is okay when it is not

If you look closely, this particular word salad was actually started by the psychologist/ psychiatrist asking, “Have you been nervous or tense lately?” (probably for the 100th time).   What the… ??  Of course the person has!  Stupid question to ask of someone locked up and having their life controlled by an institution.  But unlike ourselves in this situation (people asking stupid questions), the patient could not just exit the situation, avoid that relationship ever again, or laugh it off with a joke like we might.

So then the class explored instead: what this word salad might have actually been DOING to the psychologist, what did it DO within the social context of this interview and relationship, how did it function?  The patient was breaking all of Grice’s ‘Maxims’ of polite conversation, wrecking all the polite adjacency pairs, and presenting abstract and obfuscating answers to deflect inquiries, challenges, normal conversation, and relationship building.  And the person did this perfectly by talking word salad, which makes sense when you put it in context; that is, when you think about what this language is doing in the situation and not analyse what it means, expresses, communicates, refers to, or represents.  In a functional sense, this was not ‘disorganized’ at all!

If you really want to learn this, try it yourself in a normal conversation (but be careful!).  In the middle of a ‘normal’ conversation add “I have a head of lettuce” when someone asks you a question.  What does it do to the listener? What does it do to your conversation?  And what does it do to your relationship (hopefully nothing bad long-term).

Depending on the finer details of the context, you could look stupid, cool, smart, idiotic, mocking, Monty Python-esque, etc.  It could lead to the cessation of the conversation, to a new and more interesting conversation, to a series of funny conversations and improvement of your relationship, or to the cessation of the social relationship (hence, be careful).  Or the person who asked the question might not like you anymore but the others who are present might think you are super-funny and cool.  And in all these cases, it can also lead to a great story which you are free to tell anyone in the future, and exaggerate!

And the bigger lesson is that this form of analysis needs to be applied to ALL language uses.




2 thoughts on “Word salad is not ‘disorganized thought and speech’: Doing things to people with language use”

  1. Thank you immensely for addressing this. Clinicians keep sufferers under the tumb by coming up with these stupid weird symptoms.
    I kiss the ground you walk on for you give voice to the most vulnerable.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Bia. I am not sure about kissing the ground! haa haha But a lot of groups are starting to change the way we talk, research and change the beahviours which are real and do cause suffering. Sweeping them under words does not help.


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