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.”

3 responses to “crazy, insane

  1. “Nuts” is a synonym for crazy in English. I suspect this is because it is a reversal of Satan and, at one time, crazy people were thought to be
    “possessed by the devil”.

    • It turns out that nuts to mean “crazy” comes from nuts to mean “infatuated” or “delighted”; this positive sense predates any negative connotations of insanity by a century or perhaps more, at least in the OED‘s citations. This in turn appears to come from use of nut to refer to a source of pleasure or delight, which pluralized into nuts “fun” and for nuts “for fun”. The OED gives, among others, a quote from Tom Sawyer (1876) that is surely insistently misread by modern schoolchildren: “‘Ain’t it gay?’ said Joe. ‘It’s nuts!’ said Tom. ‘What would the boys say if they could see us?’”

  2. Pingback: daft & daffy | Sesquiotica

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