I am the very last person in the whole wide entire world who would mock someone for mental illness. I have a lot of reasons for that, which I won’t get into, but let me just say that I’m constantly frustrated (read: get irrationally angry) with how society portrays those with any type of mental or behavioral disorder as less valuable because the chemicals and neurons in their brain aren’t working as they should. But the word crazy itself has been so ingrained in my speech and vocabulary over my lifetime that, when I use it, it doesn’t have any relation to mental illness. I think it’s true for quite a few people.

Crazy originally meant something is cracked or diseased, and later developed into meaning someone not of sound mind, but nowadays that’s one of its less-used definitions. Even Webster’s definition only briefly refers to the mental health aspect of the word.

It’s the same with another highly loaded word: lame. I read an old text recently, where a man was described as lame. It confused me at first because the definition that immediately jumps to mind is the new, not the original. So when I say something is lame, I’m discussing something boring, like a party where no one shows up, or being disappointed, like bad weather ruining a picnic.

While I do hear people refer to horses or other animals as being lame if they are unable to walk correctly, I can’t remember the last time I heard a person who is unable to walk called lame. Generally, the terms I hear used are handicapped or disabled. Sometimes a more specific term for that person’s condition is used, like paralyzed or paraplegic, but never lame.  Is it just me being oblivious? Or perhaps a regional thing?

An example of the opposite, at least as I see it, is use of the word gay as a synonym for stupid or boring. Perhaps it’s a cultural perception or shift that has been happening over time. Up through the first half of the past century, gay meant happy and lively. It was only in the 1940s that it society started to  associate it with homosexuality.*

However, when gay is used as a adjective to describe something unfavorable, it almost always implies ridicule and demeans people in the LGBT community. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard lame used with the same mocking implications. But I have heard crazy used in that way. Hmm… (I’m thinking out loud again. Apologies.)

So how or when does the the gradual shift in a word’s meaning becomes the accepted definition? Or even just an acceptable use of the word? Any linguists out there? Etymologists? I’d love your insight.

But now I want to ask everyone, expert or not, their thoughts on the question that got me to pondering:

Is it okay to use lame or crazy describe anything other than a person’s mental or physical health? Or is it never appropriate to use those words in that context?

I’m really curious, because I’ve been trying to think up equivalent substitutes that express the same sentiment and nuance as those words for months now. I’ve come back empty-handed every time. So help me out here.

What words do you use instead?


*I really recommend reading the entire etymology entry on “gay.” I hadn’t realized what some of the early (medieval) definitions implied. It’s worth pondering.

You can blame and/or thank Jennifer Laughran for triggering the thought that led to this post. Also, that discussion is rather excellent, so you should read it as well.

Edit: I phrased this poorly, so to clarify: The discussion on her blog got me thinking about this somewhat unrelated topic. And as it there is a good conversation on that post, I meant to direct readers there. #brainfail