A Brief Yet Fascinating History of the Word "Crazy"

etymology of crazy
Photo: Stocksy

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on my Instagram asking my female followers if there were any gendered slurs or insults that rubbed them the wrong way and that they would like to know more about. By far, the most votes I received were for the word "crazy." A few dozen 20- and 30-something women overflowed my inbox with protestations against people (usually men) using their feelings and/or legitimate mental health concerns against them, labeling everything from their behavior while menstruating to their positions during arguments to their feelings toward their exes as "crazy." Need we be reminded of one viral video from 2014 (now deleted) in which a man named Dana McLendon gave a lecture on what he called the "Universal Hot Crazy Matrix," a graph illustrating what he believed to be the indisputable correlation between a woman's hotness and level of "crazy"? His crazy axis began at a four instead of a zero, because as McLendon put it, "Of course there's no such thing as a woman who's not at least a four crazy."

McLendon's flippant dismissal of all women as crazy is sexist and inaccurate, but, as the flood of Instagram messages I received demonstrates, it's also not uncommon. "It makes me feel frustrated and belittled," one follower commented on the word. "Plus isn't it insensitive to real mental illness? Ugh. Why do people use 'crazy' with women so lightly?"

May is Mental Health Awareness month, so these questions couldn't have come better timed. It makes sense that people have such complicated feelings about "crazy": In modern usage, the word can be applied to a number of nuanced contexts. According to Dictionary.com, the adjective's definitions (both formal and colloquial) range from "mentally deranged; demented; insane" to "senseless; impractical" (a crazy scheme) to "intensely enthusiastic" (crazy about basketball). Other informal definitions include "very enamored or infatuated" (He was crazy about her); "unusual; bizarre" (She always wears a crazy hat); and "wonderful; excellent" (That's crazy, man, crazy).

Some of these definitions could be considered positive, sure, but the negative ones definitely lead the pack. When the word "crazy" first sprang about in English, it only had one definition, and no one would have considered it a compliment. The word's earliest meaning comes from the 1570s when it meant "diseased; sickly." A decade later, it was used to describe something "full of cracks or flaws" (a crazy house); then, by the 1610s, it had evolved to apply to a person "of unsound mind, or behaving as so." Crazy in a positive sense didn't arrive until the 1920s, when jazz culture reappropriated the word to mean "cool, exciting" in a slang context.