Daily Archives: March 8, 2010

crazy, insane

The Daryl-and-Margot Show was at it again, back at the table in the food court overlooking Yonge Street.

“Here,” Daryl said, proffering an article from the New York Times on his iPhone. “This is emblematic. New York Assemblyman Keith Wright, speaking of the chaos in the state government in Albany, says ‘Our forefathers in their infinite wisdom planned for crazy. But this week we moved to insane.'”

“But that’s just nonsense!” Margot protested. “He’s simply inarticulate. Obviously crazy and insane mean the same thing exactly. One is simply a more colloquial, less respectful version of the other.”

“You mean,” I interjected, “one’s from Anglo-Saxon and one’s from Latin.”

“You’re crazy,” Daryl said (in Margot’s direction). “Or perhaps insane. But above all you’re inattentive.”

“I do not take my lead from the myriad of popular abuses,” Margot replied.

“Riiight. And you’re the only one in the orchestra who’s not off beat,” Daryl said. “Meaning is by common agreement, forged through usage. And these two have different usage patterns.”

Margot was rummaging through her bag. Evidently she had been tutoring someone who was learning English as a foreign language, as she had the Oxford Collocations Dictionary with her. She flipped a few pages and read out. “Crazy: be, seem, sound; go; drive somebody; really, absolutely, completely, totally…” The she flipped some more. “Insane: be, look, become, go; drive; certify somebody, declare somebody; completely, totally…” She looked up. “The main difference is that there are technical uses with insane: certify, declare, also criminally, clinically, et cetera.”

“So it’s OK to say insane like a fox?” Daryl asked with a disingenuous smile.

“That’s a cliché,” Margot replied. “You can’t just play around with clichés.”

“Clichés give words flavour,” I said. “As do popular titles and other common uses.”

Daryl had been pulling up some web results on his iPhone while Margot had been rummaging. “Like Crazy Train,” he said, “Crazy Horse, Crazy for You, crazy quilt, crazy eights, a wild and crazy guy, dig that crazy cat, man dat some crazy sh—”

Margot cut him off. “Yes, but those all could have been insane except for matters of euphony and formality.”

Insane Train?” I chuckled.

Insane for You?” Daryl added, arching an eyebrow. “Insane eights?”

“There’s no question,” I said, “that crazy is less formal. After all, aside from being Anglo-Saxon, it originally meant ‘cracked.’ We still talk about crazing in pottery and glasses. There’s even a French cognate, écraser – a gift from the Normans, who knew crazy. But the point is that the greater formality and clinicality give insane a tone of respect, or awe, or fear, that also gives it a greater degree of severity if one puts one word against the other.”

Insane is also unhealthy,” Daryl said. “Latin in ‘not’ plus sanus ‘healthy.’ And…” He was tapping on his iPhone as he spoke: “insane asylum, insane rageInsane Clown Posse!”

“As opposed to crazy clown, which is what that coyote is really,” I said. At long last all those Saturday mornings of cartoons were paying off. “The coyote isn’t dangerous. Is dangerously insane in your collocations dictionary?”

Margot flipped back. “…Yes… But that’s because law enforcement officials don’t use the word crazy, I’d say.”

“Right, insane is trouble with the law, whereas crazy is not; it’s just stressful.” I abruptly burst into a Billy Joel rendition: “You may be right, I may be crazy, but it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for…”

Margot waved her hand as though to dispel smoke. “OK, fine, never mind, stop. You’re driving me nuts.”

Daryl and I looked at each other and smiled.

Nuts. Lesser degree than crazy?” I said.

“Yes, I think so…” Daryl said.

Margot winced. “My afternoon headache has arrived.”


Have fun looking at this word, and then have fun saying it.

If it snags your eyes, it’s with good reason: the second half of it is just the first half rearranged… in the spelling, that is. The pronunciation is almost completely different – /r/ is the only phoneme the two halves have in common, and it’s a mere glide in the first half and a full syllable in the second.

In the first half, the o is made with the tongue lower than with, say, over, and higher than with, say, on. The s is voiceless, as indicated by the e, which is not pronounced and is just there to keep the word looking like a plural of hor and having the s said [z] – originally there was no e written on horse.

In the second half, neither s nor h is said with individual value; although we have, and have always had, the “sh” sound in English, classical Latin didn’t have the sound, and so our alphabet didn’t come with a symbol for it. In Old English it was written sc; now it’s sh. The o has always been there in this word, and used to be said [o]; the e has not always been there, though in shoer it would be there anyway as part of the er suffix. And again the e is not said; we just go straight to the r (if you’re British and glide the r, you’re still not saying the e as you would if giving it normal value; you’re saying a sound reserved for er, farther back in the mouth).

If you’re just learning English, you may well think that this word was invented by the devil, or at any rate, its referent notwithstanding, that it is quite unlucky. It stands as evidence against the silly assertion that English is a logical language. It also forces you to make a sound remarkably like that of a dishwasher in action (and nothing at all like the clank of a horseshoe). But, better still, it forces the speaker to do something rather unusual: follow an alveolar fricative with an alveopalatal fricative – you start with that [s] and then immediately have to slide the tongue back a little off the ridge. It’s just screaming for the first sound to be assimilated into the second. And it probably would come to be thus if it were a common word.

Now, it is made of two common words, both great old Anglo-Saxon words emerging from the mists of time little altered. And its referent is nothing new – someone who makes horseshoes or shoes horses. But even though there is still work (if less of it) for such tradespeople, they are not commonly called by the plain (if horse-whispering) word we have here. No, fittingly for a line of work that persists mainly in rather upscale milieux, it gets a Latinate denomination: farrier.