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OnWords: Saving 'Crazy'


George Orwell warned us about language becoming burdened with fancy words meant to obscure meaning and draw people’s attention from evil intent.

Orwell argued that being direct is more ethical, not just more elegant.

We can see this play out with words like “crazy.” “Crazy” is about as direct as English gets, and it’s tremendously useful in ordinary talk. To call something that is far outside normal reason “crazy” says what we mean to say: it’s something that pretty obviously doesn’t make sense.

But for people saddled with a psychiatric diagnosis, “crazy” can seem stigmatizing. In this context, people who call everything from a hectic day to an extremist politician “crazy” minimize real struggle. Thus, ordinary conversation becomes a minefield.

The saving grace of direct language, though, is that it normalizes experience: “crazy” is something we all understand, but “schizoaffective disorder” seems exotic and unknowable, and people so affected seem not quite human.

We’ve all gone a little crazy at times, but few of us would describe our experiences as schizoaffective. So, the danger of minimizing experience can be offset by the promise of normalizing it if we play our cards right.

And given that close to 50% of us will have some kind of mental health difficulty at some point in our lives, if we save direct words like "crazy," we’re really saving ourselves.