What’s wrong with crazy? Frequent Questions

Q: What’s wrong with “crazy”?
A: This may seem like a crazy answer, but—it depends.

I recently blogged about Warren Buffett getting caught in a time warp with one of his folksy stories. Karma’s a bitch, because I got caught in the same time warp when I delivered my Writing Unbound class last week.

Looking for some good examples of passive verbs to edit, I came a blog post called “Why Adverbs Stink (and the Magic of Editing).” The writer, identified only as Henneke, offered this example:

“Henneke is a very crazy girl.”

Well, I guess she would know. I edited that down to:

She is a very crazy girl.

Then I walked my writers through the process of eliminating redundancy—the pronoun tells us the subject is female, so we can lose the word “girl.”

We looked at ways to translate “very crazy” into a more colorful adjective without the dead weight of “very” hung around its neck. Henneke had offered

“…is insane.
“…is loony.

And an analogy:

“…is nutty as a fruitcake.”

But if we eliminate the passive verb, we open ourselves up to a much richer vocabulary.

“She acts like a crazy person.”

The crazy thing about “crazy”

And so we arrived at the point of the lesson:

Passive verbs are to be avoided.
Avoid passive verbs.

About five minutes after class ended, one of my writers sent me a note reminding me that “crazy” is not just another adjective; it’s an adjective that has been used to label and stereotype people. It’s not the kind of word one should use casually, as I did.

Now I knew this. That’s the thing—I knew this! Only the night before I’d been listening to Devon Handy and Sarah Lerner discuss this on their Hellbent podcast. They have routinely closed their show with a “Gratitude & Sanity Check”—a way of reminding us that even though many scary forces may be loose in our government, we continue to resist efforts to gaslight us. We still have things to be grateful for. Going forward, it’ll just be a Gratitude Check.

But even with that discussion fresh in my mind, I never thought twice about copying and pasting the sentence for my class. I apologized to my writer, saying I hadn’t intended to be able-ist. But she had another take on the situation: why, she wondered, is “craziness” so often ascribed to women?

In my case, I used a female example because I adapted it from a sentence I’d read in that blog. And the blog’s example was female because the blogger was talking about herself.

But my writer noted that Google’s definition of the word uses a female example when discussing mental illness and a male example for the part of the definition that connotes enthusiasm (“He’s crazy about her.”) Think the sexism of the tech industry doesn’t warp our perspective? Think again. Gender bias is so endemic we barely notice it. And I’m in the business of “noticing” words. Go figure.

Still one day this will change. We should probably just be more patient, right? After all, my writer notes:

“…it’s only been 116 years since the Victorian era ended…”

  • inclusion
  • writing