A lot of inexplicable, or at least difficult-to-comprehend things have been happening in the world lately. My various social circles are comprised of folks in various states of befuddlement lately, and the news does not cease to surprise and disgust. Things are so far beyond reason, so infuriating, so mystifying that it can be hard to expound upon the resultant emotions and articulate them cleanly. Often, things feel nothing short of crazy, like the world has lost all sanity.
There’s a problem with this. When I was younger, it was trendy to describe the inexplicable and foolish as (apologies) retarded. Even without judging rationality or logic, the word was a simple stand-in for basic denigration. Some time around high school, it would become clear to us what we were actually saying, what the implications were. Then we had a decision to make – do we live with those implications out of some lazy dedication to our extant lexicon, or do we grow and find better and less actively harmful ways to express ourselves? Can we find the empathy to recognize how dehumanizing it is to use our differences as terms of denigration.
I can’t remember the last time I used that word, and even typing it now feels entirely squicky. But I will confess that, to me, a lot of things lately have been crazy or insane. This is just as problematic, but largely ignored. Crazy comes from being crazed, in the sense of being cracked as glaze on pottery. Despite this feeling like usage entirely detached from modern sensibilities, Merriam-Webster’s first definition is still one of cracks. The second definition, then, starts with insanity and adapts that into impracticality or unusualness. While neither of these are listed as potentially offensive (American Heritage refers to these definitions as ‘informal’), I increasingly feel uncomfortable conflating something which is baffling to me with a well-known descriptor of mental health. Certainly the problem stretches beyond this – by its etymology alone, crazy is probably not a word we should be using for the mentally ill. It certainly carries with it negative connotations, which is more an indicator of how poorly we understand mental health and how little we value the mentally ill as a society than it is a knock on any individual word. The far-more clinical and etymologically simpler insane is certainly not held in a positive light.
Sanity1 is, etymologically speaking, simply a word for health. At some point it shifted toward mental health, but it has always been a word of health. If there’s any argument to be made for a modern lexicalization of crazy, detached from mental health implications, that argument falls apart with insanity. For completion’s sake, M-W’s first two definitions are mental-health related, followed by absurdity and extremeness, AH is essentially the same. Dictionaries ideally follow usage trends in language rather than starting them, so these side-by-side definitions seem to reveal the obvious: that we are, as a whole, okay with conflating foolishness, absurdity, extremeness with mental illness.
This is a feedback loop, textbook hegemony. Mental health is already so stigmatized and lacking in visibility and awareness, that casually throwing around these words as denigrations out of context is essentially second nature, an accepted part of our collective lexicon. But when we also are acutely aware that these are words which tie into mental health issues, we continue to knock down the people afflicted by these issues as we bandy them about. Language shifts, and if these words no longer evoked their health denotations, that would be very different. But, even as I feel my own mental health suffering in these uncertain times, and even as perfectly rational people question the mental health of many of the people entering positions of power2, it is incredibly hard to reconcile this linguistic conflation. I’ve been trying to catch myself more lately, whether it actually helps anything or not. If it does, great; if it doesn’t, the only way in which I suffer is that my vocabulary shifts. It is no great pain to attempt this empathy.
- By no means is the list of crazy and insane exhaustive. It’s always worth thinking about the words we opt to use, particularly when they’re being used on the offensive. ↩︎
- A discussion which is, of course irrelevant. People can be mentally ill and fit to hold positions of power, just as people can be physically ill and fit to hold positions of power. ↩︎