[Ads-l] sexist "crazy"

Salikoko S. Mufwene s-mufwene at UCHICAGO.EDU
Wed Mar 23 15:20:39 UTC 2016

I can imagine a situation in which /crazy/ in /crazy ex-girlfriend/ is 
not appositive. A person with at least two ex-girlfriends may 
distinguish them from each other by characterizing one of them as 
/crazy/ and the other one(s) as not. I think that in such a situation 
/crazy/ in /crazy ex-girlfriend/ is not appositive. That does not answer 
the question of whether it is sexist to characterize the ex-girlfriend 
as crazy.


On 3/23/2016 9:51 AM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>> "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
> "girlfriend."
> 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."
> JL
> On Wed, Mar 23, 2016 at 4:19 AM, Arnold M. Zwicky <zwicky at stanford.edu>
> wrote:
>> ---------------------- 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
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

Salikoko S. Mufwene                    s-mufwene at uchicago.edu
The Frank J. McLoraine Distinguished Service Professor of Linguistics and the College
Professor, Committee on Evolutionary Biology
Professor, Committee on the Conceptual & Historical Studies of Science
University of Chicago                  773-702-8531; FAX 773-834-0924
Department of Linguistics
1115 East 58th Street
Chicago, IL 60637, USA

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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