We are at a point now where ableist language is considered just that. Children’s book editors are editing it out. Yet some words, for instance ‘crazy’, are so frequent in everyday English it may seem ‘unnatural’ to leave it out.
The question arises: What to say instead?
The deeper question: Do we need mental metaphors at all? tl;dr Mostly we don’t.
Bear in mind that other languages have this linguistic hole (which is not actually a hole). It may be a specifically English thing to throw ‘crazy’ around as an acknowledgement that you’re listening. Japanese, for instance, has the word ‘sugoi’ which fulfils a similar function — best translation is ‘amazing’. I’ve heard bilingual English/Japanese speakers use ‘crazy’ in English where they might use ‘sugoi’ in Japanese.
But when we’re talking about people (and fictional characters) who make illogical decisions, what to say about them? Children’s writers are in a difficult position, charged not only with reflecting naturalistic speech but by modelling good language — or at the very least — avoiding the spread of unwanted language.
This was discussed in a children’s writer’s forum lately:
- There are synonyms for ‘crazy’, for instance ‘batty’. But these words can be equally dismissive. ‘Batty’ is a pejorative term for a gay man in Jamaica. (Who outside Jamaica knew that?) Takeaway point: even if a word feels neutral to us personally, we can’t be sure it feels neutral to others.
- ‘Wild’ was suggested as replacement, and has been used in books such as Where The Wild Things Are to describe breaking free of constraints. ‘Wild’ may be appropriate in a carnivalesque story. But wild now has sexual connotations, too, for exactly the same reason. Moreover, isn’t ‘wild’ just as badly used?
- ‘Bananas’ is sometimes used to mean something that doesn’t make sense. (Marina Warner has written at length on the comic value of the banana.) However, this is also on the way out, as is ‘nuts’, another food item. Takeaway point: It’s not the word you use; it’s the context and the accusation.
- Some writers suggest replacing a pejorative descriptor of mental ill-health with a descriptive word for the exact emotion intended. I like this idea because a larger proportion of the population than you think has trouble identifying and naming emotions, in themselves and in others. This is called alexithymia. If writers are exposing young readers to specific words to describe emotions, this is a helpful thing.
- Related to this, the ‘show don’t tell’ advice came up. Describing the physiological reactions and emotions of a character is fine in narration. An example given: “Every time he did that I felt the hairs all over my body stand on end and I clenched my jaw in fury.” You do see this sort of thing a lot in children’s books. But this simply doesn’t work in dialogue. Children don’t speak like that.
- Another writer suggested writing creative phrases which won’t have been used before, and therefore haven’t had time to create a negative response. I feel this has the same issues as ‘bananas’ and ‘nuts’, because so long as any phrase means ‘crazy’, it works the same as ‘crazy’.
- Some writers make heavy use of ‘ridiculous’. I guess they’re writing about ridiculous ‘ideas’ and ‘plans’ rather than ridiculous people, otherwise, again, what’s the diff?
I avoid words like ‘crazy’ and ‘lame’ in my own writing. These are not words I use in my everyday speech either, though I swear a lot in general. Ironically, the words we most wish to shield our kids from can be the least offensive to subcultures, because these words are so… well… mainstream, actually. When my child was about three and came out with, “I fuckin love vegetables” one night at dinner, I was delighted.
Seems to me that unless you’re writing specifically about mental health and disability with the aim of subverting the mainstream idea that ‘crazy’ is a harmless filler, there’s no pressing need to use it in writing (or in speech).
However, subversion is very difficult to pull off and, of all tricks, should be left to #ownvoices authors because it requires first hand experience to fully understand the issues requiring subversion.
Photo in header is by Lotte Löhr.