On language and -isms.

This seems to be an on-going discussion of late, and since I’ve been talking with many friends about it, I have a heightened awareness of (in particular) the ableism inherent in so much everyday language.

I’m astonished at how many people who would never dream of using ‘gay’ as an insult, who see the awful sexism of derisively stating “you do x like a girl”, are oblivious to how ableist it is to label something as ‘lame’ or ‘crazy’.

More than anything else, I’ve really struggled to remove words pertaining to mental health from my everyday language. It seems to permeate so many concepts and situations that I’m now amazed I didn’t see it before.

“Work has been crazy today”

“This queue is mental”

When I find myself reaching for one of these phrases, I stop to think what it is that I really mean; is it that the situation is out of control, chaotic, unreasonable? Is it inherently negative, or simply not as expected?

The interesting thing is that, whilst these examples are all of generally negative things, everyone I have spoken to about this will vehemently deny that they mean anything pejorative when they use these words. But can we really argue that there is no negative connotation around these phrases, when we never declare a happy incident to be ‘crazy’?

Language is always an evolving thing, and I think that there is something damaging to labelling negative situations with words that are also objective descriptions about people and their experience. If the argument is about reclaiming words, then it is only ever up to people to whom the words apply to decide whether they want to reclaim them. Just because we do not mean to cause offense, does not mean that we will avoid triggering a negative effect in someone.

In the end, words come to mean what we use them for, so by labelling negative situations as ‘crazy’, I cannot see how you could avoid holding a negative association if you were to interact with someone with mental ill-health.

The only possibly original thought I can add to this discussion links directly back to my previous post on measuring proxies; that what we intend is affected by what we do. I worry that in research, if we allow our questions to be defined by what we can easily measure, we run the risk of re-framing our arguments and aims in the context of those measures. With language, I think that if we repeatedly describe situations as crazy, we end up redefining the word in our mind, with a possible end result that we actually think a negative situation is equivalent to mental ill-health.

Edited to add:
A couple of people have mentioned elsewhere some examples of ways that we use ‘crazy’ in supposedly positive ways (interestingly, there are contrasting views on whether this is ableist or not). Some examples:

“We had a wonderfully crazy weekend together.”

“That party was crazy.”

“It was a mental gig last night!”

I’m inclined to fall on the side that this is still a problem, dehumanising as it is. It’s still using language that can be (and is) used against people to subjugate them to the supposedly normal masses. It’s still describing things that are necessarily out of the ordinary, with the insinuation that some people are therefore not normal and not okay*.


*Now I personally don’t aspire to normality and I think the same will apply to most of my personal friends, but I think we’re privileged enough to make that choice and assertion, whereas too many people are labelled as such without having the option to choose.


5 thoughts on “On language and -isms.

  1. It is good to discuss these things Maeve. Personally I don’t ever use mental. But I do use crazy both to describe periods of personal madness as in ‘But I was pretty crazy at that time’ (yes this does relate to mental health, that is how I use it but I would only do so about myself) and also as a positive adjective. As in ‘We had a wonderfully crazy weekend together.’ Or ‘she’s a really funny crazy woman, I adore her.’ I don’t use it much to describe negative things. I don’t feel bad about the use of crazy at all but I suppose if it is being used for negative things only it is good to challenge it. In fact I might occasionally use ‘mad’ – for instance of a video of shoppers on Black Friday ‘it was totally mad in there.’ As someone who has been mad at times I don’t feel bad about that use. There are lots of things I dislike far more – and use of ‘mental’ would be one because it feels like it is drawn directly from ‘mental ill health’ in the contemporary world. Whereas ‘mad’ and ‘crazy’ have general use in the languages of the UK and the US etc. As in ‘I am crazy about her’ or ‘I am mad on crochet at the moment.’ These aren’t negative. You wouldn’t say ‘I am mental about her’ to convey love. I am also more bothered by use of words like ‘lame’, ‘crippled’ (except by disabled activists calling themselves Crips which is really different!) and phrases like ‘hasn’t got a leg to stand on’ and using ‘blind’ to mean wilfully ignorant.

  2. I hold my hands up to using mental, crazy and mad both in positive and negative ways. The interesting thing is that I would *never* use those words to describe mental ill health. But I really need to work on my vocabulary.

  3. Interesting blog Maeve. I must confess I have never thought that using the word “crazy” and “mad” were being -ist and I use them without thinking, maybe I should think more about what I am saying? I think of them as words with multiple meanings (Richard will have a word for this but I cannt think of it at the moment). eg. black and gay and in some contexts they are totally inappropriate while in others they are used in innocence. I do think this might depend on their etymological origin. eg gay originally meant happy and carefree was then used in the late 19th C. for homosexuals and then reclaimed in the 60’s (Good As You) but then taken up as a derisive word for stupid and rubbish. I am happy with the word being used for a description of happy and for homosexuals but not in the use for stupid and rubbish.

    WRT to “mad” and “crazy” Richard and I use it about ourselves all the time as we do have mental health issues to some lesser or greater degree and we cannt see why you wouldn’t call a spade a spade. I guess we are reclaiming the word. When I use them to describe other people, things and situations I dont think of it having a negative connotation although others may interpret it to be so. I think I will monitor this more and reassess my use.

    I never use the word mental as I do think it derives from and is used as a derogative term.

  4. There is quite a conscious language reformation in certain registers of the English language, such as college students and upper secondary students learning the effects of their words on other people.

    My secondary students (11th-12th graders in an American K-12 school system), who are diverse in social backgrounds, socioeconomic status, gender, linguistic and any other way you can “distinguish” diversity, didn’t realize the effects of the word “gay” in everyday conversation. I had one student mention that another student was “gay” in the sense that the other student’s actions were inappropriate or abnormal. I stopped class right as I’ve heard this and we had a very effective class discussion on the effects of words and how we use them, and I had students offer better ways of describing people, actions and items with more appropriate terminology. What is most fascinating by this is that when I stopped the class, the student recoiled her words and said “I didn’t mean to swear!” to me. I had my students give me definitions of gay, we discussed if the word “gay” was now a swear word (or taboo to use), and the effects of descriptors in social contexts. I believe that my students got a lot out that class discussion.

    I don’t necessarily believe that my students are homophobic, but that their natural dialect along with a limited vocabulary restricts their descriptions to socially pejorative adjectives. This is the case across American high schools in the 21st Century with the taboo and possible reclamation of the word “nigger” with high school students, as most high school students, especially in lower and middle class socioeconomic backgrounds, freely use such a word because of the culture and linguistic register students belong to. More and more English teachers now hold classroom discussions (usually in a fishbowl format) that are student-led for the use of this word, as it shows up in American literature that students study in the class. One such example is from high school teacher Yvonne Divans-Hutchinson at King Drew High School in Los Angeles, California[1]. Hutchinson had her class anticipate the reading they were about to do with a questionnaire and class discussion on the word “nigger”, as that word appears in the text they were about to read. The class had a fruitful discussion of the word, the social context used with the word, and the implications of the word on people. The class came to a decision to say “the ‘n’-word” aloud instead, respecting the author’s diction but realize that the word has certain connotations that cannot be ignored and that there are other ways of expressing one’s self. Students not only in my own class but in others had the same discussion. These students use the word “nigger” in their everyday vernacular as a loose colloquialism, with no apparent division of demographics (I see white students saying the word to their black friends in the hallway, leading me to believe that this is a socio-linguistic aspect rather than simply social). These students enter our class and have a discussion (again, student-led and teacher mediated) about the word they so readily use to sing aloud lyrics to the hit song that they are listening to, and the class comes to a consensus that such a word does have social connotations and can see how the word “nigger” can be used pejoratively. These students leave our classrooms being more socially aware of the diction they use in regards to respect for other students, and more comfortable with the reading that American authors wrote in a time when the word wasn’t attached to a negative connotation.

    In regards to a more specific aspect of specific descriptors in the English language such as ableism, I hear “insane” and “crazy” on a regular basis in two different extreme contexts: one such as “You gotta try this hamburger, it’s crazy good!” or “You really jumped off your house? That’s insane!” reflecting a positive reaffirmation or emphasis on a subject. On the other hand, I’ve heard teachers call the parents of their students as “crazy” as in “mentally unstable” as parents would do anything for their child’s success. Now in the regional dialects that are in the United States, these terms are generally considered socially acceptable to use, as the United States no longer diagnosis under this description, and is exclusively used as a legal term in official contexts. Because no one is labeled as insane, crazy, mad, etc. anymore, the term is generally considered a common insult or to denote something that is at an extreme or unusual degree. This isn’t true in all English dialects and certainly not in every language. In Dutch, most (if not all) insults are related to abelism and illness[2]. For example, one could say in Dutch “lui als de ziekte”, which means that someone is “as lazy as the diseased”. Such insults that related to illness and disease are common and yet very taboo as well, as calling someone an “asshole” in English isn’t as serious as cursing someone with cancer in Dutch (“krijg de kanker”, in English: “get the cancer”). It’s such a stock answer, but the use of ableism related insults or adjectives depends on the social context. I certainly wouldn’t use such phrases and words in The Netherlands, but I just wouldn’t care enough to filter them in everyday conversation in the United States.

    Recognition of the consequences of words is causing language reformation in a most peculiar, unusual and novel way. There is an article from Slate.com that explains how in Sweden, activist, administrators, psychologist, teachers and other credible professionals are pushing for a gender-neutral environment for children, especially younger ones. One big idea is to refer to children as “hen” instead of “han” or “hon” (for non-Swedish speakers, “han” means “him” and “hon” means “her”).

    I actually wish English could adopt such a policy, but this isn’t how language evolution and development works. Such a development would be so much easier on the eyes, as reading “he or she” and even “him or her” gets tiring after a while. The correct usage of these pronouns when referring to a non-discriminant subject or object in academic writing is pushing the boundaries of the awkwardness of writing in Standard Written English anyway.

    [1] http://www.insideteaching.org/quest/collections/sites/divans-hutchinson_yvonne1/aboutme.htm
    [2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_profanity
    [3] http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2012/04/hen_sweden_s_new_gender_neutral_pronoun_causes_controversy_.html

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I think you’re spot on that what we really need to do is examine our use of language, and especially encourage young people to do it. Youth slang, in particular, evolves so fast that you cannot possibly lay down rules about what is and isn’t acceptable, but what you can do is try to ensure that the people who are at the forefront of that changing language are thinking about the varied meanings and context of what they are saying.

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