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Outlandish but not crazy

The study of language has generated a lot of outlandish ideas: various bits of prescriptive dogma, stereotypes and folklore about dialects, fantasy etymologies, wild theories of the origin of language.  Every linguist probably has their own list. When these ideas come up in classes or conversations, I have sometimes referred to them as crazy, wacky, loony, kooky, or nutty. I’m going to try to stop doing that.

It’s not because these ideas have gotten any more sensible. It’s because of those adjectives themselves. Over the years, some of my students shared their own experiences with neurodiversity. A recurring theme is the sting they feel when someone refers to something as crazy or insane or loony.

Thinking about their experiences and reading their essays about the ways in which words have hurt them helped me realize that I can do a better job of talking about foolish ideas when they come up. If I refer to things instead as preposterous, absurd, ludicrous, or ridiculous, I’ll doubtless sound overly professorial and pedantic. That’s a small price to pay. And perhaps being more professorial will encourage me to expand on why the bad ideas are so silly.

I’m probably not going to succeed at first. I’ve been using crazy, wacky, and other terms for a long time—and there are a lot of silly ideas out there in the world. But it is possible to change how you use the words that make others feel devalued if you pay attention to your vocabulary.

One of the ways to pay attention to your vocabulary is by looking into the history of words. Insane is quite literally “not sound of mind.” It seems matter of fact, but it calls up literary images of psychiatric hospitals from works like Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among many others. We no longer call psychiatric hospitals “insane asylums,” so I feel justified in dropping insane from my casual vocabulary.

Ridding myself of crazy may take more work. The word is deeply entrenched in Modern English and there are some uses I will probably want to keep. Referring to a fad as a craze seems fine to me—that dates from the early nineteenth century. And crazy about, like mad about, can be used when someone is particularly enamored of another person or a thing. Yet when I look it up, I see that crazy goes back to the verb acraze meaning “to crack in pieces” or “be cracked into pieces,” like glass might be. It soon also meant “to be driven mad,” as King Lear was by grief: “The greefe hath craz’d my wits.” The image of crazy as “cracked” and “broken” is going to stick with me.

Loony (which can also be spelled with an “e” as in the long-running Warner Brothers Looney Tunes) is thought to have come about by way of Latin borrowings like lunacy and lunatic, and thus related to things lunar. But this usage may have also been influenced by the English dialect word loun, which referred to a lout or worthless person, and by the bird known as the loon. Unpleasant images all.

Wacky, nutty, and kooky seem less harsh, but I’ll probably still avoid them. Wacky (or whacky, the spelling of with an “h” seems to come and go) found its earliest uses as a synonym for crazy in American slang of the 1930s (even appearing in an issue of The Journal of Abnormal Psychology). The usage is related to the phrase “out of whack,” meaning “disordered” or “malfunctioning.” By the 1950s, its meaning had softened to mean “odd” or “peculiar,” at least when used of people.

As for nutty and nuts, they were first used to refer to zesty seeds. Their piquant nature led their meaning “very fond of” or “infatuated by,” which was later extended to the idea of insanity. Kooky and kook are more recent English words, becoming prominent in the late 1950s and used as the nickname of a hipster character on television’s 77 Sunset Strip. The usual etymology is as a shortening and respelling of cuckoo, like the bird or clock. But another view relates it to the Hawaiian expression kūkae, meaning “feces,” and neophyte surfers were sometimes referred to as kooks.

Word use can change, at a personal level and socially as well. Retarded is no longer used. Nor is the noun clipped from it. The words moron and imbecile too are increasingly rare except in the lowest discourse. However, idiot is still pretty widely used, notably in a popular book series celebrating our collective befuddlement, so we are probably stuck with it.

A word’s etymology is not its destiny of course, but looking at these word histories has reinforced my decision to try to stop referring to the outlandish and eccentric as crazy, insane, loony, wacky, kooky, or nutty. I may not succeed, but I’ll be thinking about where these words come from and how others may take them.

Featured image: “Loons on Lake Wawa” by Helena Jacoba. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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