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Power Move or Psycho: An Etymology of 'Crazy'

One of my favorite op-ed pieces of the month has been an article by Harris O’Malley, author of blog, titled ‘Men really need to stop calling women crazy’. This, in conjunction with the new game ‘Power Move or Psycho’ played on the hit podcast ‘Girls Gotta Eat’ has had me wondering – how ingrained is the word ‘crazy’ in our vernacular? Why do we use it? And do we mean well?

You see there’s a fine line between pulling a ‘power move’ and being ‘psycho’ or ‘crazy’. As per the game, and in the context of dating, you may ask -

  • Is it a power move or psycho to hang out with your exes friends?

  • Is it a power move or psycho to show up at a bar if you know someone you are interested in is at because you stalked him or her on Snapmaps?

  • Is it a power move or psycho to get someone tickets to a concert if you’ve only been dating for 3 weeks?

According to, 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).

Hence while the latter of definitions are positive and informal, the former raises a few problematic implications.

Firstly, as per its etymology, in the 1610s, ‘crazy’ was applied to a person "of unsound mind, or behaving as so." In fact, crazy in a positive sense didn't arrive until the 1920s, when jazz culture re-appropriated the word to mean, "cool” or “exciting" in a slang context.

Now what the dictionary fails to capture is that, when applied to women specifically, "crazy" has historically been used as a form of silencing.

Heres the cut on ‘crazy’ from Amanda Montell – writer, reporter and linguist.

‘Crazy’ and its unseemly synonym ‘hysterical’ is now often used interchangeably. But in the 19th century, "hysteria" was believed to be a legitimate "female mental disorder"—a diagnosis doctors gave to women who exhibited anything that could be perceived as unusual or difficult behavior (anxiety, strong sexual desire -anything).

In case you missed that– hysteria was linked to anxiety and a strong sexual desire in women.

Hysteria was thought to be inherently female; in fact, the word "hysterical" comes from the Latin hystericus, meaning "of the womb." As Gary Nunn wrote for The Guardian, "This was a condition thought to be exclusive to women—sending them uncontrollably and neurotically insane owing to a dysfunction of the uterus (the removal of which is still called a hysterectomy)."

"Hysterical" isn't the only historically gendered synonym for crazy, either -

The word "loony" also stems from a type of insanity only women were thought to be capable of. The word comes from lunacy—"a monthly periodic insanity, believed to be triggered by the moon's cycle," Nunn says. "These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness, and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts, and madness."

Here is where feminism – specifically - intersectional feminism comes into play.

Intersectional feminism may sound complicated, but it’s really just about acknowledging the interplay between gender and other forms of discrimination, like race, age, class, socioeconomic status, physical or mental ability, gender or sexual identity, religion, or ethnicity. Intersectional feminism means that we all experience the ‘crazy’ name-calling in a myriad of ways.

This association between women and insanity or excessive emotion has never had any valid biological bases. Interestingly, "there are very inconsistent findings in the literature on relationships between women's menstrual cycles and mood," as Leslie Brody, a gender and emotions PhD, found.

Instead, the motivation has been political. It has to do with power—with who gets a voice. It is no coincidence that the height of hysteria diagnoses in America occurred in the late 1850s, the very same time the women's rights movement started picking up speed.

"Women demanding equality was a pesky problem, and hysteria was a brilliant answer," therapist and author Amber Madison wrote in 2014. "Hysteria asked, 'Don't those high-maintenance females see they're too irrational to do things like own property, control finances, get a college degree, or cast a vote?' It framed female emotional instability as biological 'fact.'"

Today, doctors know that hysteria isn't a real mental health disorder. But using language like "hysterical," "over-emotional," and "crazy" to discredit women's experiences is still very much a real phenomenon.

How I Met Your Mother warned us to watch out for “the crazy eyes” and how to process women on the “Crazy/Hot” scale. Harris O’Malley wrote in 2014 from a male perspective - ‘When we talk about why we broke up with our exes, we say, “She got crazy,” and our guy friends nod sagely, as if that explains everything. Except what we’re really saying is: “She was upset, and I didn’t want her to be.”’

Many men are socialized to be disconnected from [our] emotions, he says— the only feelings they are supposed or allowed to show are either stoic silence or anger.

“We are taught that to be emotional is to be feminine. As a result, we barely have a handle on our own emotions — meaning that we’re especially ill-equipped at dealing with someone else’s.” O’Malley rationalizes.

"That’s where “crazy” comes in. It’s the all-purpose argument ender. Your girlfriend is upset that you didn’t call when you were going to be late? She’s being irrational. She wants you to spend time with her instead of out with the guys again? She’s being clingy."

As soon as the “crazy” card is in play, women are put on the defensive. It derails the discussion from what she’s saying to how she’s saying it.

“We insist that someone can’t be emotional and rational at the same time, so women have to prove that they are not being irrational. More often than not, I suspect, men don’t realize the implications of calling a woman crazy. It tells women that they don’t understand their own emotions, that their very real concerns and issues are secondary to men’s comfort. And it absolves men from having to take responsibility for how we make others feel.”

As Amanda Montell says, none of this is to say we should all strip the word "crazy" from our vocabularies. It's simply an invitation to be more intentional about it when we use it. And along the way, if you encounter someone in a heated argument or at a protest who dismisses you as "crazy," feel free to confidently pass along some of this history lesson.


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