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Why People Are Rethinking The Words 'Crazy' And 'Insane'


We're about to discuss sensitive words and why we decide to stop using them. For example, one word used to be a standard schoolyard insult. We would not say it today without this warning first. It is the word retarded. Now some people say the words crazy and insane should fall into the same category. This came up recently when our reporter NPR's Neda Ulaby was chatting with a friend.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: My friend and I were talking about something. I don't really remember what. And she said...

ZARENA ASLAMI: It is so crazy (laughter).

ULABY: I called my friend Zarena Aslami to reconstruct our conversation because she did something then that surprised me.

ASLAMI: And then I stopped myself, and I was like, oh, you know, I'm trying not to use that word to describe negative situations.

ULABY: Much in the way that many people now avoid using the word retarded. This reckoning with the word crazy began similarly among disability activists and is trickling into the mainstream. Azza Altiraifi researches disability justice issues at the Center for American Progress. Crazy might seem harmless, she says, but she thinks giving negative value to crazy or insane contributes to marginalizing people.

AZZA ALTIRAIFI: One in 5 Americans at least have lived - are experiencing mental illness. And of those people, we're talking about your neighbors. We are talking about family members. We are talking about people in your community.

ULABY: People at higher risk to be hurt, homeless and discriminated against. But isn't not using the word crazy a little bit, well, crazy?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) She's the crazy ex-girlfriend.

RACHEL BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch) What? No, I'm not.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) She's the crazy ex-girlfriend.

BLOOM: (As Rebecca Bunch) That's a sexist term.

ULABY: Rachel Bloom created and starred in the TV show "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend." It's widely respected among disability activists because of its depiction of a lead character with mental illness. Bloom thinks it's completely fine if people want to stop saying crazy.

BLOOM: That makes sense. I get it. It's a really, really complicated word. It's - it has so many meanings. It's - I think for me it's still contextual.

ULABY: Obviously there's no language police that'll force people to stop saying this word. It's an individual choice, says Zarena Aslami.

ASLAMI: I miss the word sometimes.

ULABY: But she's embracing not saying it as an intellectual challenge as well as a chance to be more thoughtful.

ASLAMI: And as, you know, an English professor, I also felt the burden of, like, well, you know, I should be able to be more specific. When I say something's really crazy, what do I really mean? Like, it's really stressful. It's really busy. But as you and I talked about, those words don't really have the force of saying, like, something is insane.

ULABY: It might feel unrealistic to lose words with such force. I asked Azza Altiraifi what she would say to the people who are rolling their eyes right now at the notion of rethinking crazy.

ALTIRAIFI: What it tells people like me is that my life is not worth that adjustment. And if that is where people are, then it's really no surprise that people living with mental illness face such disproportionately high levels of violence and harm.

ULABY: Language is living, she says, and using language that brings more dignity to people with mental illnesses maybe not such a strange idea after all. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.