The Etymology of Psychological Terms: “Ambivalence,” “Schizophrenia” and “Autism”

Ambivalence was first a psychological term, literally meaning “strength on both sides.” Paul Eugen Bleuler, the psychologist who coined it in 1910, also coined the terms schizophrenia (“a splitting of the mind”) and autism (from Greek autos, “self”).

Originally coined by Swiss psychologist Paul Eugen Bleuler in 1910, “ambivalence” as a psychological term means much the same thing as it means in general speech—a state of having simultaneous conflicting reactions, beliefs, or feelings. It is formed of the Latin ambi- “both, on both sides” + valentia “strength.”

However, it’s a more nuanced term in psychology, tied to the study of attitude’s effect on behavior, as well as cognitive dissonance (or “psychologically uncomfortable ambivalence”). The term was adopted into more general usage as a result of popularization by Freud and its subsequent appearance in literature. Freud was fond of the term because it provided more specific terminology for his own work.

Bleuler described three types:

  • Volitional ambivalence: an inability to decide on an action
  • Intellectual ambivalence: the skeptic’s philosophy of “There is no reason but hath a contrary to it.” (Freud gave Bleuler shit for being intellectually ambivalent toward Freud’s intellectual constructs—id, ego, and super-ego—because he both praised and criticized the concept.)
  • Emotional ambivalence: opposing attitudes toward the same person or thing, like a person who both loves and hates their spouse

Although he acknowledged that people who are perfectly mentally stable can experience ambivalence, Bleuler notably used the term in relation to disordered behaviors and schizophrenia, a word which he also coined in a 1908 lecture (or perhaps as early as 1907). It is formed of the Greek skhizein, “to split” + phren, “heart, mind.”

“Schizophrenia” would then replace the term “dementia praecox” (meaning “premature dementia” or “precocious madness”), which was introduced in 1891 by Arnold Pick.

Bleuler believed schizophrenia to be an incurable physical disease and advocated for people diagnosed with it to be eugenically sterilized.

He coined the word autism to refer specifically to a symptom of schizophrenia in 1911, describing the symptom as extreme introvertedness that results in the predominance of inner fantasies, loss of contact with external reality, and distance from others.

In 1938, “autism” took on its current meaning after the term was adopted by Hans Asperger (as in Asperger syndrome), who applied it to child psychology. Leo Kanner also helped to popularize its modern usage in a 1943 report about 11 children exhibiting similar behaviors.

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