Guest Post from RMJ: Ableist Word Profile: Crazy

RMJ is a twentysomething with OCD who grew up in Kansas and currently lives in Virginia. She works in education and loves cooking, cats, and television. She blogs about feminism and stuff at Deeply Problematic. RMJ’s previous guest post: Athletes with Disabilities: Arm-Wrestlers as Exceptions and Inspirations.

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post

Like every ism, ableism is absorbed through the culture on a more subconscious level, embedding itself in our language like a guerrilla force. Crazy is one of the most versatile and frequently used slurs, a word used sometimes directly against persons with mental disabilities (PWMD), sometimes indirectly against persons with able privilege, sometimes descriptive and value-neutral, and sometimes in a superficially positive light.

As a direct slur against PWMD:

Crazy as a word is directly and strongly tied to mental disability. It’s used as a slur directly against PWMD both to discredit and to marginalize. If a person with a history of mental illness wants to do something, for good or bad, that challenges something, that person’s thoughts, arguments, and rhetoric are dismissed because that person is “crazy”. If a PWMD is going through pain because of something unrelated to their mental state, culpability for the pain is placed solely on their being crazy. Even if their suffering is related to their disability, it is, in a catch-22, dismissed due to their “craziness”; the PWMD is expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they want to be viewed as a valid human being.

Examples:
“I can’t believe Britney shaved her head. Crazy bitch.”
“Not only is Dworkin cissexist, she’s fucking crazy!”

As a way to discredit neurotypical people:

Crazy is also often used to describe a neurotypical person that the speaker disagrees with. It’s used to discredit able-privileged persons by saying that they are actually mentally disabled – and what could be worse than that?

Examples:
“Tom Cruise is fucking crazy. Seriously, he’s batshit insane about Prozac, yelling at Matt Lauer and shit.”
“Did you hear that Shirley broke up with Jim? She thought he was cheating on her.” “Yeah, she’s crazy, Jim’s a great guy.”

As an all-purpose negative adjective:

Crazy is often used – even, still, by me and other feminists – to negatively describe ideas, writing, or other nouns that the speaker finds disagreeable. Conservatives are “crazy”, acts of oppression are “crazy making” , this winter’s snow is “craziness”. This usage makes a direct connection between mental disability and bad qualities of all stripes, turning disability itself into a negative descriptor. Whether it means “bad” or “evil” or “outlandish” or “illogical” or “unthinkable”, it’s turning the condition of having a disability into an all-purpose negative descriptor. When using crazy as a synonym for violent, disturbing, or wrong, it’s saying that PWMD are violent, disturbing, wrong. It’s using disability as a rhetorical weapon.

Examples:

“They took the public option out of the health care plan? That’s fucking crazy!”
“Yeah, Loretta went crazy on Jeanie last night. Gave her a black eye and everything.”

Crazy as a positive amplifier:

On the flip side, crazy is often used as a positive amplifier. Folks say that they are “crazy” about something or someone they love or like. But just because it’s positive doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Crazy as a positive adjective still mean “overly” or “too much”. It’s meant to admit a slight lack of foresight or sense on the part of the speaker. Furthermore, a slur is a slur is a slur, no matter the context. Crazy is mostly, and overtly, used to mean “bad”, “silly”, “not worth paying attention to”, “too much”. Persons with mental illnesses are none of these things as a group. The positive use is not that positive, and it doesn’t absolve the mountains of bad usage.

Examples:
“I’ve been crazy busy lately, sorry I haven’t been around much.”
“I’m just crazy about ice cream!”

Crazy a destructive word, used to hurt people with mental disabilities. It’s used to discredit, to marginalize, to make sure that we feel shame for our disability and discourage self-care, to make sure that those of us brave enough to publicly identify as having mental disabilities are continually discredited.

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29 responses to “Guest Post from RMJ: Ableist Word Profile: Crazy”

  1. Sarah

    I’ve been guilty of this. How embarrassing! Thank you so much for posting.

  2. Jess A.

    This is one of the words that trips me up ALL the time. I never realized how much I use it (usually as an attempt at a positive amplifier) until I started working to take it out of my regular speech.

    Thanks for this excellent summary of all the reasons we ought to reevaluate how we use it.

  3. Astrid

    Thanks fo rthis post. I am crazy and use the wor din a reclamatory way, but I am also guilty of all the ableist uses of the word you list. I was aware of this already to some extent, but thanks fo rthis well-thought-out reminder.

  4. idontcare

    i especially like the paragraph about “crazy as a positive amplifier”, since that is something i tend to overlook. thanks for the reminder that this usage of the word is questionable as well!

  5. christine

    Thank you so much for this post. I’ve been trying to get my dad to understand why this word is hurtful but I don’t talk well so it’s hard for me to explain to him. If it’s okay, I’d like to print this post out and show it to him.

  6. Sarah

    Great post. For some reason I’ve found this (and cognate words such as “insane,” etc.) to be the hardest ableist words to eliminate from my vocabulary, despite being subjected to “crazy” oppression myself. (I mean that as a lose term encompassing the oppression which all neuro-atypical people face.) In contrast, I’ve been able to virtually erase “lame” from my vocabulary since finding out about its ableist connotations.

    Brainstorming non-ableist alternatives may be helpful. “Ridiculous,” “absurd,” etc., seem to be the ones I find myself resorting to most often.

  7. Jen

    Crazy is unfortunately a word I have used a lot in the past. Usually in the positive amplifier mode – “crazy busy” or similar. I’m going to work on that.

  8. Kaitlyn

    Crazy and stupid are hard to cut out – right now, because I’m at home, they’re my go-to words for the dog.

    But I remember mentally working on it – no, the Tiger Den was not “crazy” – what was it really like? Crowded, noisy.

    I can’t say I’m going to erase it completely from my vocabulary – I’m only setting myself for failure. I can only work on it – “Your dog is WEIRD.” vs “crazy” Or, “man, it was like a mosh pit in the tiger den.” (too old reference, needs work.)

    This is kind of silly, but why not ask? What is a good replacement for “crazy busy”? My sister used it a few times in like 5 minutes to describe her day at work, and it implies business beyond the norm, though I assume it does not imply business that cannot be handled, it’s not chaotic, it’s smooth, just whoa, a lot of customers! (and bad tips. Hmph. tip your carhop!)

    So for the so-called “positive” ones, what are good go-to words?

    Something in general with the AWP – I don’t tell my family, they’ll use the words to piss me off. But I try to avoid using them, so I’m setting an example and working on myself. Though my sister made me proud by starting to say something was r-word and switching half way through.

  9. abby jean

    @Kaitlyn – other positive amplifiers i use are “super” “wildly” or some regionally specific ones, “wicked” and “hella.” i’ll also describe things as being “over the top” or “out of control” or even “bananas.” specifically for being extremely busy at work, i say “i was slammed at work today” or one i’ve adopted from professional kitchen lingo – “i was in the weeds all day today.”

  10. Molly Bandit

    @abby jean – I really like those suggestions.

    The “positive amplifier” one made me think. Being not-so-neuro-typical, I thought that me using crazy as an adjective in those instances was reclaiming it by making it a “positive” phrase (ie “crazy good,” “crazy awesome”), but upon some reflection, I’d say at the very least, half the time it wasn’t. So that’s certainly something I’m going to work on now.

  11. Kaitlyn

    Thanks, abby jean!

    “Wicked awesome” would be wicked awesome coming from a slight southern accent. :P

    This is a bit presumptuous, but hey, no harm in asking – is there going to be another thread about replacement words – what do you say now instead of [ableist slur]? Or should we discuss that in the AWP profiles themselves?

    I think I’m going to look at old slang… though my sister would die of embarrassment.

    I think “crazy” warrants more looks – why is it so pervasive in both a seemingly “positive” fashion (“You look crazy good!”) and a negative one (“Glenn Beck is crazy.” If course, a way to stop calling people “crazy” if you disagree with them is to point out that you’re dismissing their arguments and insulting crazy people. If all you have is “he’s crazy,” you’re lazy.)

  12. Morgan O'Friel

    Oh, I’m so glad that you made this post. I’ve been hoping for it for awhile now, so that I can have something to direct people too whenever I call them on it. I’ve had a lot of people say I’m overreacting/being too sensitive about the term, so I’m really pleased to see this.

  13. Vic

    I like this post, it’s a very neutral way to point out the ableist origins of words that are often used without much thought. Being aware of my ableist privilege is something I’ve been working on within the past year or so and word usage is something I’ve been uneducated about so this is great. I look forward to more ableist word profiles. :)

  14. Mina

    I sometimes say something is “crazy good.” :(

    I am not as offended being called crazy as I am when someone says I have “mental issues.” You see, when I was hospitalized, my dad’s ex-wife worked at the hospital and illegally told my half-sister I was there and my diagnosis. I did report her but her boss said I had no proof and it went nowhere. (I really really wish I had called a lawyer, but it was in 2003 so the statute of limitations is probably well past.) Well, she decided that I have “mental issues” so I can’t be around her child anymore, so I’m estranged from my niece. My dad also refers to some of his family as having “mental issues” and so in my family, that’s like a way of saying someone is seriously mentally ill, but leaves it wide open for nasty gossip. I am not saying being called crazy is a good thing, but it’s not a particular trigger word/phrase for me like “mental issues” is.

  15. idontcare

    @abbyjean: “i’ll also describe things as being “over the top” or “out of control” or even “bananas.””

    i (as a non-native english speaker) had the impression that ‘bananas’ was used as a synonym for ‘crazy’, so that semantically both would be the same, ie carry pretty much the same meaning. so i’m not really sure if that’s much better than right out using crazy?

    dictionary.com also says:
    “ba·nan·as–adjective Slang .
    1. crazy; deranged: All that chatter is driving me bananas.
    2. wildly enthusiastic: The crowd went bananas when the music began.
    Origin:
    1965–70, Americanism
    [...]
    bananas
    “crazy,” 1968; earlier (1935) it was noted as an underworld slang term for “sexually perverted.” “

  16. Cat

    Just out of curiosity: finding non-ableist words to substitute for ingrained ableist ones has been a hobby of mine ever since the AWP came to my attention, but what’s your consensus on “absurd?” It looks totally innocent, but as a linguistics major and massive language nerd, I know that it originally comes from the Latin for “deaf.” (It’s more transparent to me when I speak French, where the word for deaf is “sourd.”) Maybe it’s because my particular area of interest makes me aware of it, but my mind is now beginning to classify it alongside more traditionally ableist words. “Ridiculous” is still good, though, and you can’t forget my favorite: good ol’ “ignorant.”

    Also, can someone please, PLEASE do an AWP for “special?” That one drives me up the wall, yet I don’t think I really have the authority to do it myself, as that’s not one that’s really been leveled at me so much, I just hate it when people (even TAB/Ms who might otherwise be allies) use it as an insult—and it’s hard for me to think of it as anything but one because of things like that. :(

  17. RMJ

    OP popping in. Thanks for all the great discussion!

    @Mina: Self-identification is obviously up to you :)

    WRT replacements: I’ve been using “wild” and “outrageous” in some cases; “unreasonable” and “silly” in others. “Really” and “excessive/ly” also work for me.

    I stay away from “bananas” because it reminds me too much of “nuts” personally, but I couldn’t say definitively one way or the other.

  18. Sparks

    Thank you so much for posting this! Despite being “crazy” myself, I’ve definitely been guilty of this before. My question is, though, how do you correct people? I don’t usually point out when someone uses the word “crazy” because I’m afraid they’ll think I’m taking things too far, or they don’t know that it’s ableist. I know that’s not an excuse, but I’m just not sure how to approach the subject.

  19. Miriam Heddy

    I’ve seen what seems to be a growing number of PWMD wanting to reclaim the word for themselves. I’ve read blogs and comments in blogs of FWD in which someone living with depression and someone else with bipolar disorder and someone else with schizophrenia all talk about “being crazy” or “having the crazies” (and I’ve seen this on blogs and comments on blogs by feminists with disabilities)–with that one word standing in for a wide variety of actual experiences and diagnoses. (Also seemingly being reclaimed: insane–a word that shares with crazy the use as both a positive and negative amplifier).

    So can we reasonably, as any kind of community (if we are indeed a community), expect PW/outMD to give the word up in favor of greater specificity?

    (BTW, I live with depression and have an interest in language reclamation projects, and I’ve been wondering lately whether there’s a tipping point necessary in language use before reclamation actually works and, if so, where that is.)

  20. Kaitlyn

    Sparks – If it’s something that comes up in conversation and its something grating, “driving you…. up the wall”, you could say, “Can you please not use that word that way? It’s very insulting and it offends and bothers me.” (They may stop and they may wonder why… or go “wow, that was “crazy”")

    Educating friends is different… I use this site.

  21. The Bald Soprano

    @Miriam Heddy: “So can we reasonably, as any kind of community (if we are indeed a community), expect PW/outMD to give the word up in favor of greater specificity?”

    I don’t see why not. Reclamative use of the literal meanin within a minority shouldn’t mean we can’t object to other people using the word in an insulting way.

  22. Anna

    Well, the point of these AWP isn’t to tell people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, or telling people which words they can and cannot use. It’s about discussing how words enforce certain ideas.

    I’m crazy. I’m okay with that, although I tend to avoid using that on-blog because I know it bothers some of our readers. But there’s a difference between me saying “I’m crazy” and someone else saying “Oh, that Anna. You can ignore her, she’s crazy.” Or “Oh, those X-people saying that thing. You can ignore them, they’re crazy.”

  23. Sharon Wachsler

    Thank you, FWD and RMJ, for such a great post!

    It’s because of reading FWD that I rethought using “crazy” or “insane,” etc., in the ways described in this post and started weeding them out of my language. As others have said, I’ve found it to be so pervasive, used in so many ways, it’s been much more of a challenge than weeding out other words has been. Likewise, I have tried to create a mental stockpile of replacement words. (It’s a great benefit that weeding out oppressive language enables you to enrich your vocab and think more about what you mean when you speak.) Unfortunately, one of my go-to words was “absurd,” so I’m very sorry to learn that it has audist roots.

    I agree that bananas carries the same baggage as crazy and don’t use it. However, on reflection, I wonder if the same might be true for one I do use, which is “disturbing”?

    I had a conversation about this very issue recently, and we had so much misunderstanding and confusion, I am very glad to be able to send this link so that we can further the conversation with more clarity.

    There is one time I use it intentionally, and I have in my blogs, which is when I refer to “having the crazies.” Although I don’t identify as a PWMD, since 2007 I have had intermittent (sometimes lasting for over a year, sometimes for a few hours) psychological symptoms that arise from multiple tick-borne infections. This has severely disrupted my life, causing great pain and the loss of most of my friendships. I hadn’t thought of using “the crazies” as a reclamatory word because I didn’t think I had the right to say I’m reclaiming, but in terms of how the language functions for me, it has been a way for me to try to own, describe, and regain lost power and control. So maybe that is reclaiming. But I have worried that PWMD might read my words and feel hurt, angry, or alienated, which is the last thing I want.

  24. Kaitlyn

    Sharon – there is always someone crazier than you. (“I lost my leg!” “Well he lost both and he’s not whining, so shut up.” “He’s dead!” “And he’s not whining, is he?”)

    I think if you gave a good explanation in a post where you described what was going on, or even in a reply if someone is offended.

    Because another benefit of FWD is that I feel empowered to say “That was offensive.” (I did that for the r-word… they mocked me. But I did it!)

  25. NTE

    This is the word most in need of weeding out of my vocabulary – I know because my niece has started to do that thing where you twirl your finger next to your head, you know? To signify that somebody is ‘crazy’? Yeah: She’s four, and – while I’m pretty sure I didn’t teach her that, I’m also pretty sure I’ve used the word crazy a lot in her presence. (As well as other, similar words – bonkers, cuckoo, etc.) And I need to just cut that shit out. Once I realized how utterly ridiculous it is to use such a damaging word, I started keeping track of how often I almost say it (particularly in that last, more positive context of being crazy busy or some such), and it’s embarrassing. So, thank you for writing this, because I’ll have something to print out that explains why I keep biting my tongue all the time, and calling people out when they don’t bite theirs.

  26. Ali

    Cat, I disagree about absurd–etymologically, and in usage. My understanding is that it comes from Latin via the French, originally absurdus. The latinate root (surdus) is the same here as in sourd, yes, and did mean deaf (as well as dull), but the modifier ab- is an intensifier, giving it an original meaning more along the lines of “out of tune.” It’s been used to mean something we would certainly understand as at least related to our current usage pretty much since its inception, which makes it decidedly not ableist to me.

  27. RMJ

    @Sparks: Ironically: I typically am not hugely bothered by it when I hear it in conversation. It’s something I note mentally, the way I note the urge to get compulsive or obsessive, and let it pass. It is so heavily embedded in our culture that I just have to move on (unless it’s a feminist setting, and even then occasionally I have to conserve my energy).

    Conversational activism is not a strength or focal point of mine at this point (not something I’m particularly proud of). When I have the energy and inclination, and feel safe, and if we’re in the context of agreeing with each other, I say “I don’t like the word crazy, but yes, I agree that Lost is racist/Gaga is totes awesome/school is overwhelming.” Folks I know socially pretty much invariably know that I am a fairly committed/active feminist and will catch my meaning. (All this is indicative of many kinds of privilege, esp. the fact that I am probably read as unconditionally able-privileged by what I would wager as the majority of my friends).

  28. kaninchenzero

    @mina You have my deepest sympathies. I haven’t seen or spoken to my cousins, my mother’s sister’s kids, in over ten years. I helped raise these kids. I’m godparent to all of them, changed their diapers, drove them around when they couldn’t sleep, made up stories like Dan the Dinosaur Dog,* gave into pestering to play the boys in chess and smacked both of them with a fool’s mate, cleaned up a whole lot of scrapes and vomit and kitchen experiments.

    But only [the name I used when I was trying to be the gender imposed on me] got to do that. Moira was not allowed to have contact with them at all.** And since being not-Moira was killing me I stopped being not-Moira and started being Moira all the time and it’s been more than ten years since I’ve talked to them.

    I have been told they’ve heard about me but frog knows what they’ve heard. I’ve not asked how they feel about that. Or how they feel about their mother cutting me out of their lives. And them out of mine.

    * Alas, it would probably earn me a visit from the nice people at Homeland Security if I told you the whole thing — it involves blowing up a rather famous bit of real estate in New York though without injuring anyone except Dan the Dinosaur Dog who finds to his dismay that dinosaur bones are made of rock and not bone and chowing down on a Anatotitan copei thigh bone gets one a mouth full of broken teeth. The kids thought it was funny as hell though.

    ** Relative drama here; the aunt is very angry and would have excellent cause to be angry at her mother. But being angry at mother is scary so doesn’t. Being angry at me is safe; I’m a freak.

  29. hexalm

    @Sparks: I find that jokes help. It at least makes people think about it a bit without being put too much on the defensive, or can be an ice breaker. I realize this can be hard for some people who process information differently, more slowly, or even people with an off-beat sense of humor. It’s not always something I can do just because I’m not always quick enough on the draw.

    That said, in one case, someone in a group I’m in said we’d look lame compared to group X. I said “well, I look lame all the time, but you’re right, we would look less cool than group X’. It got laughter out of people, and while the person didn’t stop using ‘lame’ unconsciously, I think I will be able to refer back to my joke to have a conversation about it.

    Another example: when asked if I wanted to hear a lame joke recently, I asked “is it about someone who has trouble walking?” He paused for a sec, then I think he got my point, and I asked him to tell be the bad joke. I’ve thought of inventing jokes just to do this to people. A lame joke: “A lame guy walks into a bar. He sits down and enjoys himself like anyone else, dammit!”

    I think it should work about as well for ‘crazy’ as it does for ‘lame’, although for other words not so much (spaz, for instance).

    I also think a good way to defuse “You’re Being Too Sensitive(TM)” is to note exactly what kind of damage is done by prevailing ablist attitudes.

    I think it is generally appealing to people to write off someone who disagrees in an ad hominem fashion, and certainly helps one to feel smugly superior and correct. On the other hand, people use *exactly* the same sort of process to oppress people. If someone is actually ‘crazy’, then their human rights are written off in many cases, (because, you know, if someone has one irrational thing about them, their reliability and judgment must be entirely compromised).

    This works for the negative uses of crazy, anyway. And people might not get it. They won’t necessarily see the connection. But if you’re someone who’s hurt by others bandying the word ‘crazy’ about, I think it’s worth reminding yourself and the people who use such ablist language that it’s not just about ‘being offended’–it’s about the marginalization of an entire class of people.

    These are my musings, anyway. Probably best taken with a grain of salt. I’d be curious to know what others think.

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