A year ago, for one month, I ran a private experiment. Whenever I heard someone say the words “crazy” or “insane,” I surreptitiously recorded the event in a notes doc on my phone. I recorded instances of “schizophrenic or “schizo” too, though those happened less often. I wrote the time (most of the time) and context and only noted the speaker if it was someone famous, like on TV or in a song. As in my first entry, the afternoon of the first day of the month:
1. 5:00 pm PST “Crazy” by Britney on the radio at a grocery store in San Francisco
I began this exercise because I wanted to better understand a facet of our vernacular that had come to irritate me greatly. It’s a two-parter.
First: We use words like “insane” and “crazy” a lot.
Second: When we use them, we don’t often use them literally. In other words, we don’t use them to speak about craziness or insanity. Having recently completed a book about my late uncle, Bob, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, I was aware of just how little language people tend to have for this topic. In my experience, most people are uncomfortable and unpracticed talking about insanity, craziness, madness, mental illness. They do so vaguely, and with lowered voices and fallen eyes. Many favor euphemisms like “unstable” or “disturbed.” People have “issues.” People will tell me they know someone, you know, “like that.”
I began to notice all the “insanes” and “crazies” in our speech a few years ago, after I started reading and understanding more about the real situation in this country for people diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. It was like tuning into a radio frequency; the signal came through clear:
2. 10:43 pm Friend saying, “Let’s get crazy!”
3. 10:50 pm someone asking me whether my week has “been insane”
4. 11:00 am a friend saying “that’s so crazy”
When we use a word to mean something else, we imply, however subtly, a real relationship between qualities of the two. Going into the experiment, my thesis was that most of this figurative language that relies on “insane” and “crazy” would be attempting to say something negative. Inconveniences…