Replacing “crazy” for ableism and preciseness of language

If you’ve arrived at the conclusion that the word “crazy” is ableist, or at least makes some people uncomfortable, or is commonly misused and overused to the point of losing its meaning, you may be struggling to find substitute words. This post is for you. I’ve put together a list of many words that convey better what you mean when you say “crazy” and the specific usages and contexts where they make sense. And fear not: many of them are colorful, and all of them pack punch.

NOTE: these terms are meant to describe and label, not insult. While some of the words I mention could be screamed at a fellow driver who just did something incredibly reckless, this list is meant more for discussion and published writing (including blogs). It’s meant more for the writer who, say, is tempted to call Todd Akin “crazy” for his remarks about rape in 2012, but realizes that might stigmatize people who have mental illnesses and wants a better term. Be careful with the use of ANY of these terms, as they are all controversial in some ways, inappropriate in some contexts, etc. It is not possible to compile a list of perfectly “safe” terms to describe antisocial behavior – what’s recognized as “antisocial” isn’t even the same in every culture or region.

Finding the word

You’ll have to ask yourself what you actually mean in order to figure out how to convey your thought to someone who’s not living in your head with you. I’m not going to get into every possible usage of crazy, i.e., “the weather’s crazy all over the place.” I’m sure you can figure out alternative terms and phrases for those things on your own.

I am going to cover some replacements for “crazy” in the context of describing human beings. Because mental illness is not well-understood (and most people receive little or no education in it, even with what’s considered a good liberal arts education), it can be a struggle to express better how someone’s just plain “crazy.” This list will help.

Instead of crazy

  • Someone who disagrees with you for reasons that make no sense is not necessarily “crazy.” They may be illogical, irrational, misleading, taking an emotional position, lying, not making sense, not thinking, incapable of critical thinking, an asshat, an assclown, a dipshit, beyond irrelevant, rationalizing, arguing an unsound position, arguing without foundation. They may also be naive, mistaken, confused, misled, misinformed, uninformed, ignorant. What they’re saying may be absurd, nonsensical, half-ass, ridiculous, ludicrous, full of shit, bullshit.
  • Someone who acts like an asshole may or may not be mentally ill – neurotypical people are fully equipped to be assholes. They may be entitled, violent, aggressive, toxic, rude, mean, cruel, deranged [see note here], selfish, having delusions of grandeur, inconsiderate, full of shit, a user, a jerk, an asshole. Modifying these words with adverbs or incorporating them into colorful phrases – “farcically entitled” or “too selfish to live” – makes them far more powerful and memorable in written language than “crazy.” Other choices include: incapable of getting along with anyone, thinks so highly of him/herself, refuses to listen to anybody, never admits s/he’s wrong, doesn’t care about anyone but him/herself. That’s really just scratching the surface. There are so many ways to vibrantly describe someone’s bad behavior with pinpoint accuracy – and that accuracy gives your words power.

What about someone who’s really, really acting like an asshole? Say, a murderer, or child molester, or domestic abuser? Let’s say this person has not only done these things, but claims he had every right to do them, or that his victims forced him to it or something equally nauseating. Or what if some people online agree with him: “Yeah, some little kids really do just look so sexy, it’s hard to keep your hands off them.” Suddenly, you feel like you’ve stepped into some hideous otherworld, and you’re so offended you’re having fantasies of lopping these people’s heads off. “You are just so crazy!” is all that’s coming to mind.

But you can do better. Extreme assholes need to be exposed for precisely what they’re doing wrong. Most people probably already agree with you that they’re “crazy” (in the sense of being stunningly out of kilter with the reality most of us seem to share). Being more precise will enhance the words you use against them. Extreme assholes like the ones I described are:

  • Vile. Vile is a great word that people don’t use enough.
  • Disgusting. Implies they’re dirty. Will really, really offend people who value their social status.
  • Scum, unworthy, bottom-feeder, turd, vomitous, a little piece of shit, a piece of filth, inhuman, ugly (as long as context clarifies you’re not critiquing appearance).
  • Lacking empathy. This is far more precise than “narcissistic”, and applies to far more of these types of people.
  • Criminal, but only when used against someone of higher social standing, like a banker or rich child abuser, who thinks his status protects him from consequences. (The word “criminal” can be problematic in its legal usage, given that what’s defined as “crime” for a less privileged group is often defined as a misdemeanor or even non-event when, say, someone like George W. Bush does it.)
  • Narcissistic. Please use this one correctly. It’s not synonymous with ordinary selfishness. Narcissists are what we used to call “psychopaths.” If you actually know a thing or two about narcissism, from having studied it or lived with it, you can use this one. Don’t bother telling someone he’s a narcissist: he’ll just be happy you’re talking about him.
  • Rape apologists. This term can start a riot online if you apply it to people who are rationalizing the activities of rapists, or blaming victims of rape. Much stronger than “crazy.” It’s like racism: people are happy to engage in it, but they sure don’t like getting the label applied.

Controversial terms

Now, here’s the thing. There are some other mental illness related terms you need to be aware of. First, the one’s with easy answers:

  • The weather or your job cannot be “schizo” or “bi-polar.” Only people can be those things [ETA: reader Mel Health left a great comment about this: “one should not say ‘that person is bi-polar, or ‘that person is a schizophrenic’, it must be phrased ‘that person has schizophrenia’. The point is to avoid identifying someone only by their disorder (which sadly happens anyway).”] . Just don’t ever use these terms unless you’re discussing them in a mental illness context. That doesn’t mean you can speculate out of frustration, “I think Politician A has bi-polar disorder.” First of all, it doesn’t matter if she is or not, because mental illness is not the reason people do or say horrible things.
  • Don’t armchair diagnose real people. The vast majority of you deeply overestimate your skills in that area and will just make an asshole of yourselves. Those of you who actually do know what you’re talking about – well, it could still be considered defamation, and thar’s big bucks in them thar lawsuits. If, for example, you think it’s vital that people realize a particular politician might be literally devoid of empathy and conscience (and I think these things are important), the best way to say it is: “Her behavior demonstrates a lack of empathy” or whatever rather than saying “I think she has NPD/ASPD.”

There are some other words which may or may not be ableist, depending who you talk to. Perhaps this is the right time to say that I have had depression and anxiety issues since childhood and personally don’t find “crazy” ableist except when it’s being used to describe a person who’s not conforming to your expectations. Different people have different sensitivities. To be safe, dumping all of the following words from your publication vocabulary would be wise. But they are not indisputably ableist – there is debate.

  • Lunatic/lunacy. Refers to the belief that the moon could make people deranged, which we now know is just silly. But it’s still a mental health label, and calling someone a lunatic is a little like calling one of those armchair diagnoses we discussed above. I think “lunacy”, however, is acceptable, as in “This law the politician has proposed is sheer lunacy.” That suggests a very real phenomenon, in which humans get swept up in a mob mentality and develop horrifically bad judgment. But that’s the only context I use it in. [See comments for arguments that lunacy is ableist.]
  • Nuts. Purely a euphemism for crazy, so most people who find crazy ableist will also object to it. But, again with the varying sensitivities.
  • Batshit. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t find an argument suggesting this one is ablist. Bat shit – guana – is used to make explosives. Calling someone “batshit” suggests they have an explosive and unpredictable temper, not that they are mentally ill. [ETA: M Peterson points out that most people understand this word as synonymous with “insane”, which kicks all the usual ableist problems right back into play. From polling people I know, I’ve confirmed that’s true, and unfortunate. It could be such a good term, if only more people knew what it really means.]
  • Loony is short for “lunatic” or “lunacy”. I thought it came from some loon (bird) behavior, and apparently there is a shade of that, but mainly it’s synonymous with lunatic. So I might say, “This law is loony-tunes”, but I would not call someone a “loony.”
  • What about insane, the obvious substitute for crazy? Well, aside from having a decidedly more diagnostic feel than “crazy”, it’s otherwise identical. Even when describing ideas rather than people, you should use one of the substitutes discussed above.

Got anymore suggestions or questions? I’ll do my best to answer.

Comments

  1. Josh says

    Useful list in so many ways, but I’d like to see you take ‘common criminal’ off of there as an insult, because it taps into a whole other set of oppressions (not only racism and classism, but also ableism) that make some people more subject to criminalization. Thanks!

  2. Jennifer Kesler says

    Ah, very good point. This article is 4 years old, and I wasn’t aware of those issues as much as I have become since. Please check out how I rewrote that section, because I think it CAN be useful to apply the term to people of higher status – like George Bush with his expunged DUI, which makes him a felon in my book – shouldn’t be allowed to vote, let alone run for office. But if you disagree, let me know why and I’ll think it over.

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