[Ads-l] sexist "crazy"

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Wed Mar 23 14:51:45 UTC 2016

> "my crazy ex-girlfriend" is very likely to be intended appositively if
you're someone who believes that ex-girlfriends are "by definition" crazy,
while ex-boyfriends are not -- and your usage is then likely to be be
understood as sexist by hearers or readers, because it betrays your belief.

By why would you assume that unless you were a (female) sexist?  Do most
men think their ex-girlfriends are "crazy"?  Is it OK for a lesbian to use
the phrase?

"Crazy" would be understood as appositive only by persons whose (possibly
unconscious) agenda demands it. Freud referred to this as "projection."
 (Admittedly language would be impossible without "projecting" onto
someone's words what you *think* they mean.)

If there's a sexist term at play here, I suggest that it's the phrase
"crazy ex-girlfriend," but only when used to imply exactly what Arnold
says, that all ex-girlfriends are crazy. But that is not what the words say
or, on the basis of social stereotyping, even suggest. I'm unaware of any
pervasive or even noticeable U.S. stereotype of "ex-girlfriends" as sharing
any particular characteristic beyond "ex."

Frankly I don't believe I've ever heard the precise phrase "crazy
ex-girlfriend" before this, even though I've known many guys with
ex-girlfriends.  I do know a now distinguished person who briefly dated a
young woman who might informally be called "crazy."  But she was hardly a

But back to basics. Are we even sure that the "perception" expressed in the
song is anything more than a joke: i.e., the posited girlfriend proves
*herself* "crazy" with the accusation that "crazy ex-girlfriend" is a
"sexist" term. Particularly when applied to her. (The woman neurotically
attuned to imagined linguistic sexism - while being herself generally
insufferable - is a familiar comic stereotype.)

("Sexist" - unless I'm obtuse - connotes "offensive to manners, fairness,
and reason, and an unjust burden upon the other sex, usu. women.")

The bland assertion that calling *any* woman "crazy" is somehow "sexist"
(not merely insulting, wrong, ridiculous, etc.) and - in the words of the
linked essay - "a dick move," conveniently overlooks several things. First,
that "crazy" is usually a unisex term meaning "crazy." Second, that
corresponding usages like "My ex-boyfriend was a jerk/dick" are thus by
default "non-sexist" - or at least not sexist enough to matter. The essay
almost suggests that using such terms against men is a kind of liberating,
politically assertive (Aren't men more often called "jerks" by women? I
think so, but who knows? And doesn't is presumably sexist etymology make it
at least as sexist as "hysterical"?)

Once we get beyond the obvious (e.g., "Don't demean women"), the question
of "sexism in language" soon becomes a foolish, if appealing, game of
self-promotional "gotcha!"  ("What everyday term can *I* trenchantly reveal
as sexist and thus influence the attitudes and language of millions?")

One might write an essay arguing that "jerk" and "dickwad" are sexist
terms, but I doubt anyone would care.

And the "evidence" seems to be considerably stronger than the "evidence"
for "crazy."


On Wed, Mar 23, 2016 at 4:19 AM, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at stanford.edu>

> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       "Arnold M. Zwicky" <zwicky at STANFORD.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: sexist "crazy"
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> > On Mar 22, 2016, at 6:48 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> wrote=
> :
> >=20
> > ---------------------- Information from the mail header
> -----------------=
> ------
> > Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> > Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> > Subject:      Re: sexist "crazy"
> >
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------=
> ------
> >=20
> > And here are the lyrics to the theme song of the aforementioned TV show,
> =
> Crazy Ex-Girlfriendf:
> > http://genius.com/Rachel-bloom-crazy-ex-girlfriend-theme-song-lyrics
> >=20
> > Note the bit that goes:
> >=20
> > [Backup singers]
> > She's the crazy ex-girlfriend!
> >=20
> > [Rebecca, speaking]
> > That's a sexist term!
> >=20
> > ... There's a definite perception out there...
> >=20
> Throughout all of this discussion, Jon Lighter has insisted that "crazy X"
> =
> just means, and always means, 'X who is crazy', despite so many people's
> cl=
> ear perceptions that there are two different cases of "crazy X", which
> "fee=
> l" quite different. Jon is insisting that all adjectival modification is
> _s=
> ubsective_, picking out a subset of the class of things denoted by the
> head=
>  N that have the property denoted by the Adj. It is a very old observation
> =
> -- one that I have repeated in postings on Language Log and my blog since
> 2=
> 007 -- that this is just wrong, that there are both subsective and
> appositi=
> ve modifying adjectives; in appositive modification, the modifier denotes
> a=
>  property that holds for all (in a loose sense of "all") of the things
> deno=
> ted by the head N.
> The textbook example is "the industrious Chinese", in contrasting cases
> lik=
> e "The industrious Chinese will advance in society, while the others will
> f=
> all by the wayside" (intersective) vs. "The industrious Chinese have
> succee=
> ded in transforming their country" (appositive: "all" the  Chinese are
> indu=
> strious).
> I have noted that even in cases where the Adj holds for all instances of
> th=
> e N literally *by definition* -- as in "pilotless drones" and "legless
> eart=
> hworms" -- appositive modifiers can be useful in discourse, in that they
> ca=
> n remind the hearer or reader of a universal property of the things
> denoted=
>  by the head N. Similarly with cases where the property holds of all
> instan=
> ces not by definition but by law, as is the case for "illegal
> prostitution"=
>  in almost all U.S. jurisdictions.
> But back to cases that are potentially ambiguous between intersective and
> a=
> ppositive modifiers, which is what I now claim is going on with "crazy N".
> =
> Certainly there are plenty of intersective examples, but there are also
> not=
> able appositive ones, like "my crazy brother", said by someone who has
> only=
>  one brother (where it's parallel to constructions like "my lunatic of a
> br=
> other").
> Something like "my crazy ex-boyfriend" can be intended, and understood,
> eit=
> her way, but "my crazy ex-girlfriend" is very likely to be intended
> apposit=
> ively if you're someone who believes that ex-girlfriends are "by
> definition=
> " crazy, while ex-boyfriends are not -- and your usage is then likely to
> be=
>  be understood as sexist by hearers or readers, because it betrays your
> bel=
> ief. (Similarly, "vindictive ex-wife", if you're someoe who believes that
> e=
> x-wives are "by definition" vindictive, while ex-hubsbands are not.)
> Arnold
> ------------------------------------------------------------
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