Words that hurt: “Crazy”

blocks spell the words "Words have power"

Many of us have heard or possibly said, “That’s crazy!” or referred to something as “crazy.” Maybe we have even described a person as “crazy” but when saying that word, do we know the history of oppression that it carries?

“Crazy” originated in the 1570s and was defined as “diseased, sickly.”  The term soon was associated with a specific group of people, those who had mental illnesses. Closely tied with the word “insane”, “crazy” became a slur for people who were outside of the societal norm of mental health. 

People with mental illness have a long and difficult story in history. Records and testimonies dating back to the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamia state that mental illness was thought to be the work of supernatural or evil forces. Prayers and exorcisms were used to “treat” affected individuals and to please the spirits in them. 

European thinkers around the 5th century BCE thought that mental illnesses were caused by problems in the brain or imbalances of the body. Treatments like leeches or special diets were used as remedies. Care for people with mental illness was usually left to the individual’s family. People with mental illnesses were brutally treated, often caged or concealed from the world in order to hide the “shame of the family.” People sometimes abandoned their relatives on the streets. 

The mass establishment of asylums happened around the 16th century. These group institutions became a place where people with mental illness could be abandoned. They were a holding place for those individuals rather than a place for treatment. 

Until reforms in the 1800s, people in asylums were treated like animals, often chained and put in inhumane living conditions. The reforms implemented may have lessened the extreme living conditions in asylums but they did not erase the fact that mental illness equalled something abnormal, something disgraceful and shameful. 

This one simple word, “crazy,” carries with it this complex story. The word has been used in many oppressive situations in history to dehumanize those with mental illness. Yet, today, it is used in daily speech to mean that something or someone is ridiculous or outrageous, usually used negatively. “Crazy” has always been meant as a shameful thing to be until the jazz age started using it to mean “cool, exciting.” However, rarely is this alternative meaning used.  

There are many people who strongly oppose using the word “crazy” at all because it suggests that being associated with mental illness is shameful and bad. Because “crazy” is used so often in daily speech, this feeling is only perpetuated and continues to marginalize those with mental illness. According to a blog post on Deeply Problematic: Feminism and Stuff, the use of ‘crazy’ in everyday speech as an insult, in turn implies that having a mental illness is an insult and therefore, people with mental health disabilities become a “rhetorical weapon.” 

Perhaps the term “crazy” will still be used for years to come, but maybe with education around the history of people with mental illness, we can become more intentional with it’s use.  


Bader, Daniel. “‘Crazy’ Talk: Why Having a Mental Illness Shouldn’t Be An Insult.” Bipolar Village. Bipolar Village, 22 Apr. 2013. Web. 17 July 2014. 

Foerschner, Allison M. “The History of Mental Illness: From ‘Skull Drills’ to ‘Happy Pills’.” Student Pulse. Student Pulse, 2010. Web. 17 July 2014. 

James, Rachel McCarthy. “Ableist Word Profile: ‘Crazy’.” Deeply Problematic:  Feminism, And Stuff. Rachel McCarthy James, 17 May 2010. Web. 17 July 2014. 

Lesley. “New Bad Words: An Incomplete Compendium of Potentially Offensive Language, Featuring ‘Lame,’ ‘Retarded,’ and Many More.” Xo Jane. Say Media Inc., 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 17 July 2014.

McManamy, John. “Is ‘Crazy’ Appropriate? Yes, You Say.” Knowledge Is NecessityBlogspot, 3 June 2010. Web. 17 July 2014.  

Naiman, Sandy. “An Open Letter to Zoe Kessler About the Word ‘Crazy.'” Psych Central. Psych Central, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.  

Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 17 July 2014.