On the ubiquitous use of “crazy”

“I have a crazy commute.”

“With three kids under five, my life is crazy right now.”

“I have an insane workload at my job.”

“My schedule is crazy; I get up at 4:30am, and don’t get out of class until 9:30pm.”

“I’ve been in school… wow, three years now! Isn’t that crazy?”

These are all things I heard tonight, during intros in class as the new quarter started. “Crazy” (and its progenitor-twin “insane”) is used incessantly by so many. It’s our culture’s catch-all for bad, or overwhelming, or chaotic; it’s an amplifier, with bad or neutral or even good connotations, depending on tone and context; and it’s what we use when we don’t know what else to say, how else to respond (“I got these shoes for only $5! Can you believe it?” “Woah, that’s crazy!”). I encounter this online as well, to be sure, but it didn’t occur to me until tonight how much less the circles I travel in use it, and how much easier it is online to say “um, please stop.”

Because I want it to stop.

I want you to stop.

What? Why? You must be crazy if you think I’m going to stop using crazy!

Because your commute might be long, your life might be chaotic, your workload might be stressful or heavy or overwhelming, your schedule might be unbearable, the length of time you’ve been in school might be longer than typical, but I promise, none of them are crazy. None of them have a mental illness, none of them are neurodivergent, none of them are emovatypical, none of them have been diagnosed with a mood disorder. Not one of those things is crazy. I am crazy. They are things you want to complain or exclaim about. And I am not your prop.

But that’s just nuts! I don’t mean actually insane. You don’t know anything about metaphor!

Metaphor, noun: a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance.

In what way does your commute-life-job-workload-schedule resemble me, exactly? Is your job buxom and great in bed? Is your commute witty and clever? Is your life a talented writer, opinionated, have a taste for bad puns and worse sci fi shows? No? I didn’t think so.

But I didn’t mean those things about you! I meant your craziness! I mean, craziness in general!

Yeah. You meant this integral part of me, parsed out, isolated, dehumanized, de-person-ified. You meant my badness, my overwhelmingness, my stressfulness, perhaps? You meant this aspect of me which you don’t understand, and don’t care to think about the reality of. You meant this thing about me that you are going to ascribe meaning to, regardless of how I feel about it, regardless of the meaning it has in my own life, regardless of whether I think of it as a thing at all.

Why are you taking this so personally? I’m not even talking about you!

Of course you’re not. I’m sure you don’t mean to say anything bad about me. I used “crazy” the way you do not that long ago, too; I get it. But why are you taking so personally my statement of preference that this word wielded against me so cruelly not also be used so casually to mean anything you want it to mean? I’m not attacking you; I’m telling you how this word wounds me.

Now you’re just being melodramatic. Don’t you have bigger things to worry about?

Sure. I have mental health disparity because of racism and other bigotries, and exorbitant prices of prescription drugs, and insurance that won’t cover the medicines that work for me, and mental health wards closing, and overcrowding and dehumanizing protocols in the ones still open, and cops shooting people they know are unwell, and mental health used as an excuse to take away our kids, and a lack of effective treatments, and a terrifying mortality rate that people treat as a dishonoring failure in morality. I got lots of bigger stuff to worry about.

And I have this. This one teeny, tiny, paper cut of an issue, which I encounter a dozen, a hundred times a day. This minute, puny little issue that does nothing, except hurt me infinitesimally in isolation, infinitely in combination. This one so easy to overlook aspect of an entire culture that hates me and devalues me and dehumanizes me and degrades me and dismisses me and uses me for a punching bag and as a punchline. It is one tiny word used a million times a day that reflects and reinforces the culture that is responsible for all that bigger stuff, which I am impotent to dismantle. So you’ll excuse me if I sometimes address something not so big.

You’re taking words away from me! This is censorship!

Oh, would that I had that power. I’m not sure I would use it, but it’s fun to imagine.

I am taking nothing from you. I have no power to deny you the use of any words. I don’t even wish to have “crazy” stricken from your vocabulary. I only ask, and I ask only, that you think about how you use it, and maybe start reaching for different words sometimes.

But what else am I supposed to use?

I don’t know. What are you trying to say? How about: chaotic, overwhelming, wonderful, awful, surprising, unbearable, untenable, unbelievable, unorganized, ecstatic, hectic, really, very, muchly, heavy, excessive, sublime, supreme, crowded, distressing, disgusting, irrational, irritating, ignorant, great, good, or simply bad? You might be amazed how much bigger your functional vocabulary is by reducing your use of this one little word.

That’s too much work! Can’t you just deal with it?

I can deal with it. I can shrug, and roll my eyes, and let it slide off my back, and take a deep breath, and laugh it off, and let it go. I can do this a dozen times a day. But a hundred? My shoulders and my eyes are getting tired, my back is getting bruised, I’m starting to hyperventilate, I don’t much feel like laughing, and I can’t get rid of it for all I try to.

Why must I do all the dealing, all the coping, all the work? Why can’t you do some for a while?

But I’m crazy too, and I don’t care!

Yeah, neither did I. Except the part of me did, the part of me that internalized that to be crazy meant to be chaotic-bad-inhuman-devalued. The part of me that said that maybe it was just as well, that I deserved the names, that I deserved to be treated as less-than. When I started letting go of that part, so long hidden, the rest of me started caring.

Maybe it isn’t the same for you. Maybe you can exist in a world that tries to cut you a hundred times a day and not be damaged. Maybe you have an infinite ability to laugh it off. Maybe you have Kevlar skin.

I don’t. Doesn’t that matter?

It’s not going to change anything, even if I stop. You’re fighting a losing battle.

If you start using other words where now you use “crazy”, it’s going to make my life that little much more kind. If you start thinking about the words you use and noticing the words other people use, it’s going to make you a better person. If you start asking other people to change the words they use, and challenge the attitudes those words reflect, it’s going to spread the message. If you use this new awareness to pay attention to the headline that your local government is cutting mental health funding, that another person was shot when they should have been helped, that some politician is trying to get you to think less of another because a family member is a lot like me, and you vote differently and add your voice to the protest and make a small donation to a cause that empowers us, if you do this and ask others to do this, actually, it can change quite a lot.

I don’t expect the use of all degrading metaphors to cease in my lifetime, and possibly not in any lifetime. But I have to believe, and have reason to believe, that the world can be better for our working for it.

But I don’t want to think about all the hurt I’ve caused. And I know I’m not going to be able to stop right away!

Neither do I, and neither did I, I promise. Our whole life our entire culture has told us that this is ok, that using one person’s pain for our convenience is right and proper. But now you know better. Now you have an opportunity to do better, to at least try, and keep trying, until it becomes habit, and easy, and you wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

No one is asking or expecting that you do it all at once. Just that you try. And I bet you’ll succeed, because it is just a tiny little word.


So now we have option A: Yeah, whatever, you nutter.

And option B: …I guess.

You can be a perfectly lovely person and go with A. I did, when I first had the choice, and pleasantly for me the friends who had this discussion with me didn’t kick me to the curb. And I won’t if you do the same now.

But I hope you’ll pick B. Will you?

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77 Responses to On the ubiquitous use of “crazy”

  1. Great way of using arguments & really powerfully addressing them. I hope lots of people read this article xx

  2. Yes I will-

    thank you for writing this.

  3. April (MamaSaysYes)

    I choose B! Absolutely.
    And I already feel that, in doing so, I regain some self-respect and acceptance that I felt I had lost because of my craziness.

    Thank you, once again, Arwyn :)

  4. Well put. I feel the same way about the word “lame”.

  5. Can you write a similar post about the uses of the word “retarded,” the phrase “my husband is babysitting my kids tonight,” and the threat/excuse “maybe you’re adopted?” I have shared this post in every way I can think of. So many people have no idea how certain phrases and words can hurt people or how those words or phrases can make an otherwise understanding and progressive person sound like a insensitive or intolerant, racist,bigot, or misogynist. Thanks for speaking out.

    • Nean — I wrote one just a bit ago on the 40 phrases I never want to hear again, parenting judgment edition, that included the babysitter line.

      Others have written about the r-word, and of course there’s a whole campaign about it.

      • Thanks again, Arwyn. I think I just need to internalize. I use the words like crazy, insane, mental, unbalanced, nuts, and depressed incredibly flippantly… but then, I personally identify with every single one of them and when I say that my life is crazy and my kids are driving me insane, I truly mean that everything in my life is spinning wildly out of control and I have lost my ability (yet again) to make sense of any of it due to my own personal imbalances and mental health issues. I feel an ownership to these words that I don’t feel anyone else who doesn’t identify has the right to claim. Perhaps it’s the same way that black people use the n-word to refer to one another, but it’s offensive when someone else calls them that (or the b-word in association to women). I don’t know… just mulling out loud. ~Nean

  6. For “crazy” and all similar words (earlier commentors mentioned “lame” and retarded”)…

    One of my English professors stated that we were not allowed to use the word “very” to exaggerate a word (such as in “very sad”). She said, “there are better words out there, learn some new ones.” Again, for example, instead of “very sad,” try “morose.”

    Overuse of words like crazy, lame, and retarded is hurtful (foremost) but it’s also lazy. The overuse of profanity can also be lumped in here. Can’t you come up with a better word? If you can’t, then improve your vocabulary. Overuse and improper usage are signs of a poor and/or lazy vocabulary.

    Maybe by pointing out that people LESS intelligent when they use these speech patterns they will change…(I know not likely, but I can hope).

  7. I use ‘crazy’ a lot and I have thought previously quite a bit about the kinds of aspects you have raise here because I care about abelism.

    But for me ‘crazy’ has a lot of meanings and I like that the word has so much pop culture attached to it and so many definitions. You mentioned the negative connotations but not the positive ones like ‘crazy about you’. I grew up with a lot of ‘crazy’ around me and I like having a word that describes both the bad and the wonderful at once because that was very much my experience of ‘crazy’. I don’t want to divulge much about myself and my family in explaining my ownership of the word but I do want to note that I enjoy how fluid that word is and the breadth of behaviours and emotions and experiences it can be used to describe.

    I don’t mean to be rude or challenging or hurtful in writing this comment (hope I am successful in that), I just thought I would tell you why I use the term and also that I really enjoyed the way this post was composed – it was a lovely read.

    • @blue milk you said what i was feeling with care and eloquence. i, too, am waffling whether to own a possibly problematic but rich and nuanced word or to strike it out, as other ablist language has been removed from my daily vocabulary. i haven’t yet found a compelling reason to do it, despite the beauty and emotion of posts such as this. at this point, the best i can do is to be aware that it has the power to hurt and not use it provocatively, but i’ll likely still use it and own it and love it, with all of its facets, much as i’m learning to do with “fat”.

    • Just a thought– even with “positive” uses of “crazy” like in the phrase “crazy for you,” what is that phrase saying? My understanding has always been that it means “I’m so into you that I am no longer thinking straight or acting rationally… I am behaving like a ‘crazy person’ due to my overwhelming feelings for you.” So while the obvious sentiment of being so in love with a person is positive, there is still that underhanded-slap-in-the-face element present below the surface. Does that make sense?

    • I agree with you. I think that “crazy” has multiple meanings, just as “fat” does. I am fat but would not be offended by a quilt shop offering “fat quarters” or somebody winning the lottery and saying they were in “fat city.”

      • Mary — The ways “fat” and “crazy” are used are not identical. Fat isn’t used 20 times in one five minute round of intros (estimating, but not exaggerating — there were 14 people who used it, and several used it multiple times) as an amplifier and catch-all stand-in for bad/chaotic/hectic. I wouldn’t be hurt by those uses of fat much, either (though I am more so when “fat” gets used in things like “big fat liar”, and have been trying to reduce my own use of that and related phrases).

        But just saying “it has multiple meanings” doesn’t negate anything that I’ve said here. It has multiple meanings because of the cultural devaluation of and bigotry toward craziness. It has evolved to have those other meanings because of how and what we think about crazy, and crazy people, and what it means to be crazy. If mental and emotional conditions were respected and honored, if neuroatypical and emovatypical people were seen as fully human and not Other, “crazy” wouldn’t have come to be a near-meaningless fill-in-the-blank word of exaggeration, emphasis, and negativity. And what I am saying here is that I am not anyone’s prop. My disability/brain/being is not and should not be used as a handy metaphor in a way that continues the devaluation of my personhood and the misunderstandings of my condition.

        Fat and fatness definitely get used as props also, but not in the same way. (Think of “the fat friend” in movies, fatness indicating laziness or slobbery or evil in stories, and so on.) There are comparisons to be made between oppressions, but we can’t directly translate from one to the other.

        • Thank you for this, Arwyn. I was listening to Ani Difranco this morning, a song I’ve heard at least 1000 times, and the word “crazy” rang out to me when she used it. “You can call me crazy but I think you’re as lazy as white paint on a wall…” I guess that’s the point, right? The bringing awareness? Baby steps…

    • blue milk — I didn’t give examples of but I did allude to the “positive” uses of the word. (RMJ addresses the “positive” uses in her post on the word at Deeply Problematic. For all that they’re used “positively”, they still rely on stereotypes of what “craziness” is and means — that crazy people like me are universally irrational, compulsive, excessive, etc. And while we, like the rest of the population, sometimes are, the fact that we are stereotyped only and always like that hurts us — personally causing pain, reducing the respect the neurotypical and emovtypical world grants us, and, as RMJ says, makes us less likely to seek or receive help.

      In a world in which I was fully respected, not marginalized, in which craziness was seen as another way of being, in which crazy people had full access to whatever level of help they desired, in which “pop culture” represented us and didn’t merely use us as de-humanized metaphors… in that perfect world, I could see the use of “crazy” as a metaphor or slang to express that which is passionate and effusive and ebullient and grandiose, and it might not be an entirely negative, Othering thing. But we most emphatically do not live in that world, and right now, the slang use of “crazy” contributes to our marginalization, and stops that idealized world from being created.

      Again, I’m not saying you’re a horrible person if you don’t stop using it, and I’m not going to interrogate you about your experience to get you to “justify” your use. But whatever meaning it has for you, which might be meaningful and important and good and even healing personally, please recognize that it has meaning and function for the rest of us, and it is harmful and hurtful both personally and collectively.

      • I also like the way youth/pop culture (how old do I feel using the phrase – ‘youth culture’?) appropriates words with stigma and reinvents them as positive terms, for example ‘sick’ and also Australian Aboriginal young people reinventing ‘deadly’.

        • Anyway, I won’t go on here in this post because I don’t want to come across as argumentative and I also recognise that this is space for those people who don’t like the use of ‘crazy’.

    • When I feel tempted to use a term and I’m not sure if it’s ableist, what I try to do is figure out other phrases that mean the same thing. So for “crazy about you,” I might think “wild about you.” So what’s the cultural correlation between “craziness” and “wildness”? Why is “wild” the next word that pops into my head?

      Then I try to figure out exactly what it is I want to say. Probably something like “I love you so much,” or “I’m falling for you,” or “I’ve been thinking about you a lot.” It has the nice effect of usually being closer to what I want to say anyway.

  8. Since building a website for people with disabilities about 10 years ago, I have been much more aware of ableist language and other hurtful ways of referring to people with disabilities. I have found it fairly easy to remove terms like “retard” from my vocabularly because I don’t make a habit of insulting people and when I do, there are plenty of non-ableist terms to choose from that will fit the bill very nicely.

    But I do have to admit that terms like “crazy” and “nuts” have been more difficult for me to remove from my vocabulary. They are amplifiers and sometimes I am looking for a way to amplify without necessarily applying a qualitative good or bad judgment against a situation. I know that I shouldn’t use crazy or nuts and if I can’t come up with a better term after trying for a minute or so, my option these days (if I catch myself, which I admit that I don’t always), is to just not say whatever I wanted to say. But if anyone has suggestions for good general amplifiers, I’m looking for some…because shutting up and not saying anything isn’t something I’m very good. ;) But I can do it.

  9. I disagree.

    I think ‘crazy’ used to mean disorganized, stressful, etc., is a usage that is so ingrained into our language that attempting to remove it would be a useless battle, as well as being ultimately unproductive. I do agree that ‘crazy’, when used to refer to people having something wrong with them – as in, “Hitler was crazy. He was just completely insane” – is something that should be actively fought. But ‘crazy’ used in a non-mental health context is slang that I don’t think is worth fighting, both because it would be so difficult to remove and because I don’t think the harm done is worth the effort to change it.

    • Uh, it’s ingrained in our language because of society’s perception that mental illness, or “craziness/insanity” before it was acknowledged as mental illness, is disorganized/stressful/overall bad.

      You don’t see the harm done in it because it’s so hard to bring up. You don’t see the harm in it because reactions like yours, that there’s no harm done or that there isn’t enough done, silences those that are hurt. You don’t see the harm done because the people that are hurt have that low self-worth further ingrained into our minds that our pain isn’t worth your effort.

      So we shut up. Because your attitudes show that you don’t care about us. Except for when it hurts so much that we have to say something anyway, because it would hurt more to stay silent.

      You don’t see the silent suffering. You can only see when the silent suffering becomes too much and we have to raise our voices above a strained squeak or hide behind text. And when you’re fighting against the entire world, doing that is so incredibly hard, because often we already feel like it’s a losing battle (and y’all telling us it is doesn’t help that).

      That’s why it seems like there isn’t enough harm done. Your harm keeps us quiet and subdued until we can’t take it anymore.

    • “I think ‘gay’ used to mean pathetic, silly, effeminate, ineffectual etc., is a usage that is so ingrained into our language that attempting to remove it would be a useless battle, as well as being ultimately unproductive. I do agree that ‘gay’, when used to refer to people having something wrong with them – as in, “Hitler was gay. He was just completely homosexual” – is something that should be actively fought. But ‘gay’ used in a non-sexuality context is slang that I don’t think is worth fighting, both because it would be so difficult to remove and because I don’t think the harm done is worth the effort to change it.”

      I’ve made some changes by substituting ‘gay’ for ‘crazy’. I could have substituted retarded, or lame.

      Still feel the same way?

    • Janis — Good thing you don’t get to decide what is worth my time and effort.

      Also, that’s not you disagreeing, that’s saying you don’t choose to bother. Which, y’know, is your right. But it’s not the same thing.

  10. So glad I’m not the only one who feels “crazy” is offensive; it’s right up there on my list with “gay” and “gyp,” which are also way too ubiquitous in my small town.

    • I hear ya on the “gyp” one. Especially since in countries such as the US, it’s not as hot of an issue so people don’t have a whole lot of access to information on the fact that it’s a problem or why. Really frustrating.

  11. Thank you so much for writing this. I’ve been struggling with a post on the same issue for weeks – and I will still work on that one, but I’ll have this one to point people to, as well.

    To the couple of people up above who are talking about reclaiming (I think) “crazy,” I gotta say: If you’re mentally ill (like me!) and use the word to describe yourself or the way you’re feeling (like me!), that’s one thing.

    If you use it to describe people who ask that you don’t, or without considering that just because it’s okay with you, that doesn’t mean it’s okay with everyone, or even making a token effort to try and expand your vocabulary for those times when you really don’t mean “crazy”… That’s another thing. And that thing is not reclaiming.

  12. Wow, guilty. I will work on changing my language. As a new parent, I’ve already started with other words (not using body parts or bodily functions as insults, calling people out around me for offensive ironic hipster language like “gay” and “retarded” as a cognate for “stupid”.)

    Now “crazy” goes on the list. Thank you for making my points a little clearer and my language more precise. And thank you for continually putting yourself out there. It is brave, beautiful, and awesome.

    Lily, aka Witch Mom

  13. On my second day at the mental hospital, when I first ventured out of hiding to try to meet the other patients, I tried to break the ice by saying “Man, the food here sucks, and there’s no salt, even! Doesn’t that just drive you nuts?”

    Everyone winced.

    After that it got to be more of a joke between us–an empowering set of phrases, if you will–but once I got out I haven’t used it since. That is MY word, not yours – stop using it so flippantly!

  14. Omg I love you for this post.

  15. Thank you so much for this- as a crazy person myself, I’ve been struggling with the use of ableist terms recently.

  16. Whoa, I was all set to disagree with you on the basis that “crazy” had other meanings before it was co-opted to be synonymous with disordered mental health, and that the mental health meaning is not necessarily the predominant one…but then I took a look at the word’s etymology. And yeah, from its origins, it was used to mean flawed (crazed, cracked), and usually in an emotional/mental way.

    So, that said, now I’m thinking about how I use “nuts” and “crazy”. What I really mean is “hectic”. So I’ll make an effort to say that. Or frantic, turbulent, boisterous, chaotic, frenzied, rip-roaring, unsettled, tumultuous, exciting, frenetic, etc etc.

    I should see whether or not you’ve ever done a post on “delivery” in birth terminology. Women give birth, they don’t deliver anything and they aren’t (usually) delivered from anything. Glad to see people bringing up “gyp”, too.

    • Jess — etymology is fascinating, isn’t it? For instance: mad meant insane long before it became synonymous with angry, and only became so because of its association with mental illness. Because we’re all very angry, disturbed people don’tcha know. (Alas, my child has picked up “mad” for “angry”, and is being very stubborn about switching over. Le sigh.)

      I haven’t done one on “delivery” (yeah, actually, “delivery” IS for pizzas, thanks! you might catch — or cut — but the person with the uterus births), but I’ll add it to my idea pile.

    • I’ve been thinking about this post and I suppose in the large number of comments, someone has brought this up–but what about rejecting the label of “crazy” since it doesn’t completely, accurately describe mental health?

      Rejecting the label and encouraging people not to use the word go hand-in-hand.

  17. I’ve been trying to remove words like “crazy” “nuts” and “lame” from my vocabulary recently… As Annie above said, it’s REALLY tough sometimes, b/c they’re such easy words to use, are used so commonly, and just flow out of your mouth. But, just as I now cringe when I hear someone use “retarded” or “fag/gay” as an insult, I know using “crazy” etc is also not ok.

    So, thank you for this reminder.

  18. Thank you. It’s continued reminders and great writing like this that encourages the masses. Even those who work in the field of mental health, like myself. Thank you and thank you again.

  19. 1) I am so glad you wrote this post.
    2) This is something I am trying to be better at, removing this word from my vocabulary.
    3) I’m not quite sure that I’m explaining this right, but I’m feeling slightly more coherent than last night when I originally tried to broach it, so I’m going to try it again. I would love for the word crazy to be claimed with some other definition, to become synonymous with surprising or hectic or something else, so that it no longer had a mental health connotation. It pains me to hear a person with mental illness refer to herself or himself as crazy; I cringed a bit when I read you refer to yourself as such…in that context is it supposed to be something positive or negative? If the latter, why not purge it from the vocabulary all together? I can think of a couple of words off-hand that used to have an entirely different meaning than they do today, for better or for worse, and that most people would not realize where they came from. I wouldn’t mind one bit if crazy became one of those words, and that at some point people really had to research to know that it ever had to do with mental illness. However, I think for now this is too painful for many people and I respect that and am trying to do better. But then why not just get rid of it altogether?

    • Sometimes it’s empowering to take a term that has been used against you, turn it inside out, and make something positive when you use it for yourself. In those cases, it’s not really about other people.

    • MarfMom — I might write a follow-up on word reclamation, but in short: what Lisa Harney said.

      Fat and crazy and queer and bitch and cunt and even chick are all words that have been used against me because of marginalized groups to which I belong, and I reclaim them to reduce their negative power over me. But that is something only the group in question can decide to do (or not — examples of this include “tr*nny”, the r-word, “lame”, all of which, with small minority opinions aside, have been rejected by the affected group). Other groups reclaim “gimp” or “crip” — which does not mean that I, nor anyone else outside the group, are free to use them (except when referring to, eg, GimpGirl or Cripchick). And some people within these groups don’t, and that’s their prerogative too — we’re not all the same, and every group has disagreements.

      But no, I don’t want to see “crazy” stop being my word. Because it IS my word — it has been shoved on me, branded on me by my culture, and damnit, I have earned it, to use for myself, or not, as I wish. As much as I would have been fine having it never used against me in the first place, it’s not the privileged majority’s right to take it away from me as a self-descriptor, either.

      Does that make sense?

  20. As someone who is mentally ill I like the word and like to apply it to my life, for me it’s embracing my illnesses and the differences they create in my life. I understand why it’s problematic, but as someone who is part of the group it refers to I feel it is often the best descriptor for my life and the issues I deal with.

  21. Nope. Sorry.

  22. Wow – thanks for pointing this out. I probably would’ve continued using it. Like Annie, I fall into the category of using it primarily as an amplifier. And, since I have a penchant for over exaggerating anyway, I probably use it a lot.

    But, our words create reality. We need to choose them wisely, for ourselves, others, and I especially want to be a positive model for my son. I’ll definitely think more carefully before I open my big mouth. Good reminder.

  23. I, too, apply it to myself in referring to my own mental illness. It’s comfortable for me to joke around with people close to me because it makes me less self-conscious when I talk about my mental illness. To me it’s just like the n word. It’s never okay for people outside the group to say it. And I really don’t care if it’s hard for you to stop. Please make the effort once you become aware of how hurtful it can be.

    • Interesting! Thank you for explaining about why you use it. Though I would say the N word is one no one should use, part of the population or not. But I can see how perhaps the word crazy could be different.

  24. Yes, yes, FREAKIN’ yes. My mental illness does not equal a great deal on a pair of shoes. [would that it did!]

  25. Pingback: “Crazy” as a metaphor – fails, and hurts.

  26. Like some of the other commenters, ‘crazy’ has been one of the more difficult words to strike from my vocabulary as my awareness of ableist language has improved. I no longer use ‘lame’ as a general derogatory term, for example (or if I do I deserve to be called out for it!) but crazy, perhaps because of its ubiquity in pop culture, as blue milk suggested, is sometimes harder to substitute. But I can, and do, try.

    I also think of myself as crazy but I’m only just in the process of reclaiming that word.

    I hate to be called crazy. I hate it when people mean it seriously and I hate it even more when they think they are being flippant or novel ‘Oh, you must be crazy to think that!’. Because, um, I am crazy. And to imply that my craziness means I have nothing to say or that I cannot be trusted? That feels threatening because it’s a silencing technique and because the reality is that people with mental illnesses are FOR REAL not believed, not listened to. That fear of being discredited has always kept me from opening up about my illness and sometimes from seeking help. In other words, it’s dangerous. Perpetuating that fear of being silenced by continually linking ‘crazy’ with negative things, even flippantly, is really damaging. And that’s why this post is brilliant and important.

  27. You’ve given me lots to think about here.

    I think that because these usages are so common, this is a harder row to hoe, as it were. But I will try. And I won’t always succeed, but I suppose that’s not the point. With practice, everything gets easier, right?

  28. Thanks Arwyn, for explaining it so well, as always. I became aware of the hurtful nature of ‘crazy’ recently and have been making an effort to stop using it – but it’s not easy, it will take time, because it is so ubiquitous. Happy to make the effort though. Good for one’s vocabulary :)
    I would be interested to hear your perspective on what might be acceptable uses of the word. Only by mentally ill people about themselves? Can it ever be used metaphorically without being hurtful to you? How do you feel about ‘positive’ uses of the term, like Bluemilk mentioned, ‘crazy about you’ or describing a friend or event as ‘crazy’ in a good way?

  29. Oh FUCK yes. I’m crazy, and ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, ‘nuts’ etc are words I work hard on eradicating from my vocabulary and hopefully the vocabularies of those around me.

  30. I’ve finally gotten ‘lame’ almost completely out of my vocabulary, but I’m still struggling with ‘crazy’. I know I need to remove it, and I’m trying, but it still pops out now and again. I am at least getting to the point where I usually notice I’ve said it.

    On a less positive note, I tried to have this conversation with my boss. She said she doesn’t use it in a mental health sense, which she thinks is pejorative. She uses it for describing things that are so wrong that they are hard to describe differently. I offered her other words, I pointed out the origins of the word, I mentioned that it’s being used in a reclamatory sense, and I pointed out that the sense she herself was using it in was a sense that something is so far outside of the acceptable that it is insane. Nada. She has said she’ll try not to use it around me, but that we’re going to have to agree to disagree.


    And this from a woman who is usually pretty alert to systems of oppression. I mean, for heavens sake, we work at a LGBT organization! And yet, this.

    You hit the point now and again where you wonder, is trying to get through to people on this worth it? Am I going to face this kind of negating of my pretty damn reasonable view everywhere?


  31. I really do belive (after the last 10 weeks of intense therapy) that if people/everyone just changed the way they use words that a lot of hurt and pain could be stopped.

    But also trying to look at the way we use our words and the connotations we put on them. I am crazy, accept this, but by being crazy I was able to bring out the side of me I enjoyed more. The side of me that grabs an ox tongue of the shelf in the supermarket and chases her friends around threatening to lick them. To the outside world that is batshit insane, to me it’s normal. Crazy isn’t always a bad thing. Some of the best people I know I met in the mental hospital recently.

  32. This is on my long list of words and concepts I’m trying to find acceptable, mindful alternate slang for. It’s not easy, but I’m trying… fwiw, I could be seen as a smidge crazy myself (been fighting clinical depression for 20 years), but it’s not one of my self-identifiers (“broken”, now that’s another story, and one I generally only use in the past tense).

    Part of my trouble with using mindful language is that it ruins all the good insults! I mean, just for example, if I’m being sex-positive, how can I justify calling someone a “jerk”? Still working on that one, too. Ok, thinking again, it’s not the good insults it ruins, just the easy ones. But even the less obvious ones that come to mind are unacceptably disparaging, too. :(

    I do reserve the right to continue to love Johnathon Coulton’s song “Tom Cruise Crazy”.

    • Katie B — I promise I will try to get my post on intersectional insults up before your birth! Feel free (encouraged!) to nag me. I need a deadline if I’m ever to get it done anyway…

      And you are welcome to keep loving any fucked-up song you care to. ;)

  33. Thank you for this. I am slowly trying to move ‘crazy’ (and ‘mad’ and ‘insane’) out of my vocabulary. Actually, since someone once brought me up hard for saying “I’m a compulsive hoarder” and reminded me that while my house might be in disarray because I don’t throw stuff out, I have NO IDEA what it is like to have that mental illness, I’ve been more aware of my language.

    I’ve had mental health problems, and probably always will be a person with unreliable mental health. So it seems so obvious, once it is pointed out, that using these terms in every day language is unacceptable. I mean, I’m physically disabled, and I don’t throw around terms like “spaz” and think it’s okay. Why should mind issues be different?

    And BTW, I’m so bookmarking your blog. I’m a feminist disabled mother of a small boy, and so much of what you say hits home – sometimes in ways I’ve not thought of myself.

  34. This post…stunned me, and made me think in all the aware, mindful ways I want to learn to think. I don’t use ‘lame’ or ‘gay’ or those perhaps more-obviously careless words, but yes I do use ‘crazy’ as a careless intensifier. I do choose ‘B’, although my use of this word is so insidious it’s overwhelming to wonder if I will ever purge my vocabulary. (I wish I could carry this post around with me to consult for synonyms in all the situations I’ve tended to use ‘crazy’!)

    Also, fwiw, hi I’m a new reader. I grew up in a very (racially, owning-class, religiously) homogenous household/church, went to a liberal college but focused on academics, and have just in the last couple years started to be more aware of social justice issues. A Quaker (F/)friend noted in passing that she does not use the word ‘just’ in relation to emotions, because it’s minimizing and dismissive; that stayed with me, and ‘just’ is another word I am trying to painstakingly remove from my vocabulary as an example of internalized sexism. Another friend recommended Shakesville, when I asked what blogs I might start reading to think more carefully about gender issues, and somehow from there I stumbled on the Carnival of Natural Parenting, and read one of your parenting-focused entries a few months ago. I came back here during a very recent exploration of reusable menstrual products, because I remembered seeing an entry on sea sponges, then I added this blog to my newly-re-established rss feed. I don’t have (or plan to have) children and am emovtypical as far as I know, but due to my sheltered upbringing I also know that my emotions have been hidden from me. I’m doing Reevaluation Counseling as a tool to connect with my emotional, inner life, and your thoughts on this blog are inspiring to continue that work.

    Long comment, I know, but…I’m reading.

  35. This is wonderful. When I first read a blog post mentioning that this (as well as the word “lame”) was hurtful, I tried to rationalize this revelation away. But (I told myself) can’t “crazy” mean good things, too? And no one calls people “lame” anymore, so how can that be offensive? I’m a writer, I love the flexibility of the English language, the capacity it has for play — so the thought of erasing those, or any, words seemed horrifying to me. (Or did it? Maybe that was just the excuse I made, so that I didn’t have to question myself or change my habits. It’s true that erasing those words opens the door for many, many more — words more colorful, more specific, and much less harmful.)

    Even though I kept using the words, I never could forget that someone out there hurt when these words were said. And every time I said them, I winced internally. I knew I was being hurtful. And with that realization, it made those words so much more difficult to say.

    I still occasionally say them, but I’ve gotten better. I wish I could call other people out on it, but I’m not there yet. I’m already the “oversensitive feminist” to my friends and family; I already “have to see race and gender in everything”; I’m already “too over-the-top political.” I know what people would say to me if I questioned them on this point. But I hope one day I’ll step up and be the ally I want to be, the ally I am not capable of being just yet.

  36. This blog really fitted in with my morning! Here in the UK a new, tougher, equality law came into force today. It covers all kinds of discrimination, including that based on medical conditions / disability.

    And this is how it was covered on the BBC’s flagship serious breakfast news broadcast ‘the Today programme’ on its speech radio station BBC radio 4.


    • Sadly that equality law actually strips a lot of protections from a vulnerable minority (trans people), and in fact positions trans people as a problem cis people need to be protected from.

  37. I’ve been thinking about this one for a few years now. I think it’s very, very important, but so ubiquitous (as others have noted) that sometimes it seems to fade into the white noise. I’m afraid I didn’t start to think critically about it until falling in love with someone whose mother is seriously mentally ill (as are several members of her family, her disorder being highly genetic). That woman is now my mother in law, and any children I have are much more likely, statistically, to develop her condition than if their grandmother did not have it, also. But even though I’ve worried about what that could mean for my kids, in terms of life logistics, I’m not WORRIED about it, if that makes sense – my MIL has made it clear to me that even someone who has major psychotic breaks is no less capable as a person, mother, partner, artist (and maybe sometimes more capable). She’s not to be pitied, or belittled.

    Since meeting her, when I hear “crazy” used colloquially (and even when it comes out of my own mouth, thoughtlessly, as it still does), I cringe. Because it IS a dig on my MIL and so many others, even if it isn’t meant as such when said. I know words change, evolve, develop new meanings. But crazy still means crazy, and it’s still an insult unless it’s being used in a reclaimed fashion.

    I wish I never used it. I’ve been trying to stop for a long time, and I’m getting better. It’s a long process to mine these words out of our social vocabularies.

  38. Red Pomegranate

    Love x a billion. Solidarity x a trillion. I’ve been mulling this exact thing over for many months. Some of my best friends are “crazy” I love them and don’t want to use language that dehumanizes them any more than I would use language to dehumanize a friend who was a person of color. Language is powerful. Keep on with your compelling arguements, keep on with your beauty and fierce-ness.

  39. I changed my language today. Instead of saying something political was crazy or nuts, I said that it made no sense, and made my state ungovernable. I hope that was a better use of language. Thanks for making me think.

  40. I use this word an embarrassing amount. I’m horrified at myself right now, actually. After reading this post I realized I may as well be using the word “gay.” Thanks for opening my eyes, Arwyn. I can’t believe I’ve been so insensitive. I’ll start changing my language right now.

  41. Yes. A thousand times yes. I wrote about this a few months ago here: http://www.nopointsforstyle.com/2010/07/watch-your-mouth.html

    Better than my post is the second comment, which is a tiny story that shows why this matters.

  42. I’ve been considering the offhand use of ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’ for awhile now. I don’t actually find any of the arguments resonant but I’ve tried to cut back on using them as an act of sensitivity nonetheless.

  43. I’m a bad internet friend again and I only just got to read this whole post. I just wanted to say that I think of the derogatory use of “crazy” as being all those things you mentioned … but hardly ever actually people with mental illness. However, since you’ve started saying how much the word bothers you, I’ve been trying to break the habit (and it is a habit) of saying it. I keep fucking up, though. I’m sorry if/when I do around/to you. It might take me a while. Habits are hard to break, unfortunately. But I am trying!

  44. Pingback: Fully Engaged Feminism » Blog Archive » Episode 18 – Mental Health, Finding Center, and Finding A Way Out

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  48. sable_twilight

    Great post. And as a person who has issues with me knee, enough to make me consider walking with a cane at times, I’ve been doing similar work with the word “lame.”

  49. Hi there, I was just referred to your site because of my use of the word “crazy”. Although I always try to be more mindful, as a person with a mental disability I’ve always liked that crazy has become so prevalent in the English language.

    For a long time my illness made me feel like an outsider, less than everyone else, a freak (this is the word I cringe at). Mental illness has a stigma, and although world is getting better with this, it’s often something I feel the need to hide away and not tell anyone about.

    When I hear the word crazy, or use it myself, I like that it can be used to define anyone. Yes, the way we use the term is still directly related to mental illness, but it no longer means a person has a mental illness. It makes me feel less isolated. It makes me feel like what I’m going through is something that the world can relate to and accept. Everyone knows what it’s like to feel crazy, and that’s okay. Because it’s used so frequently I feel like it’s lost it’s stigma and can be used to refer to things that are good, bad, scary, intelligent, creative, etc. For me it’s use is like telling the world it’s okay to feel this way, to be this way, and I shouldn’t have to hide it because it’s something everyone understands on some level.

    Although I got here a year late, and I thank you for sharing your experience with the word, I wanted to let you know what it means to me. A few people in the comment section have talked about reclaiming the word, but for me it’s more than that, it’s a way of feeling accepted.

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  51. Yay I love this post! Thank you so much for writing it. :)

    I’d like to add that the worst use of the word “crazy” is when it is used to criticize/explain other violent or oppressive behavior especially along the lines of racism and queerphobia (you’ll hear it near constantly if you pay attention). Using it then has the effects of 1) wrongly disassociating the oppressive behavior from the dominant culture and 2) scapegoating people with mental health problems for an oppressive system/culture and 3) wrongly gendering/racializing oppressive behavior away from the white male.

    “Crazy” is also a systematically racialized and gendered word that has gained associations of “dark(er) skinned” “foreign” “immigrant” “feminine” “female” and “queer” (among other things I”m sure) from a long history of being used both informally and in the formal mental health community to pathologize identities outside of the ideal of heteromasculine white supremacy. Cultural images of “crazy mexicans” (like cheech and chong) or “crazy russians”, the frequently heard insult “crazy bitch” used against women, official mental health diagnosis for transness and homosexuality and talking back to men (hysteria), these are all examples. At this point, if you even say the word “crazy,” no matter waht the context, you are not just saying “possessing poor or deviant mental health”, you are also saying slurs of “blackbrownwomanqueerimmigrant…” all at once.

  52. Hey, my job is buxom and great in bed. :P

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