Psychiatric Lessons from the Memphis Scorpions: What’s in a Name?


Names can hurt, and they can lead to broken bones.




“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

By now, we know that this saying represents the bravado of children who are called derogatory names by other children. Names can hurt, and they can lead to broken bones. The special police unit named Scorpion killed Tyre Nichols, dealing psychological trauma and physical damage.

Now, I love acronyms and have originated some for these columns and videos. Scorpion is an acronym: Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods. I do not know who designed the acronym and whether there was any controversy about the word Scorpion. The project sounded like a welcome vision, and it apparently was successful in that regard, but along with it came an increase in police violence and unnecessary aggression preceding the death of Mr Nichols.

If the meaning of the actual living scorpions were introjected into the minds of those police officers, no wonder the mixed outcome. Scorpions are members of the class Arachnida, and related to spiders. They have strong enough poison to kill humans. I used to have nightmares about them.

We have often found that our personal names, especially our first names, matter. Mine, in case you do not know from the initial H, is originally HiIlard, which was not beloved in childhood, though it is now by me. Some years back the H came to also represent Hillel, but my favorite reference is to the Hey-Hey my grandchildren call me. People often make assumptions about the person as soon as they hear a first name. Last names often evoke assumptions about ethnic or cultural identity.

The psychological theory of associative reasoning describes a thinking process where individuals automatically link emotions and previous knowledge with similar words or phrases. Another phenomenon, known as “implicit egotism”, indicates that we are unconsciously drawn to things that sound like our own names. Jung noted that Freud—which is German for “joy”—advocated for the pleasure principle.

One could even wonder about the name implication of both the American Psychiatric Association and the American Psychological Association. The word American really refers to all the Americas—North, South, and Central America. More accurate, then, might be the United States Psychiatric or Psychological Associations. To avoid confusion about each APA, one could change to the United States, or USPA.

Once, when I was the medical director of our academic not-for-profit managed care system, I set up a contest for the staff to choose our name. The name that won was Luminous. What better name could we have with its positive implications? Contrast that with another managed care system, for-profit at that, named Take Control. Our outcome did match the name in terms of quality-of-care outcomes.1

As for Psychiatric Times™, what could be a more appropriate name for a publication that is devoted to the ever-changing and increasingly diverse psychiatry of our times?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times™.


1. Moffic, HS. The Ethical Way: Challenges & Solutions for Managed Behavioral Healthcare. Jossey-Bass; 1997.

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