[Ads-l] "insane" as a compliment

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Tue Jul 17 17:12:31 UTC 2018

"Insane" is one of a family of "crazy" words that gets applied to
awe-inspiring performances in music, sports, etc. In 2011 I wrote a column
for the Boston Globe (based on discussion here) about another member of the
family, "ridiculous."


An excerpt:

The word first flip-flopped from negative to positive in the late 1950s,
cropping up in jazz circles. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the usage
back to 1959 ("His technique is ridiculous!") and quotes the 1960 book "The
Jazz Word" as saying, "To a jazzman..._ridiculous_ is wonderful." A 1955
interview with Dave Brubeck in the oral history "Hear Me Talkin' To Ya" may
offer a clue to how being _ridiculous_ became respected in the jazz world.
Brubeck describes how a jazz combo can begin with an arrangement and then
have soloists freely improvise, before 'going out' with the arrangement
again. "And when we're playing well," Brubeck explains, "the out parts are
ridiculous, usually, because the inner parts have come up to the level
where you’re truly improvising."
Free-form jazz improvisation in the postwar bebop era must have seemed
truly ridiculous to the noncognoscenti, but those who "dug it" knew there
was beauty to the madness. Jazz slang of the time often equated
improvisational skill with foolishness: An inspired musician was _crazy_,
_real gone_, _outrageous_. As Jonathan Lighter, editor of "The Historical
Dictionary of American Slang," recently suggested on the American Dialect
Society mailing list, "the psychological trigger for laudatory _ridiculous_
may be that something is so astonishingly good, that if anybody had
described it beforehand, the normal, well-ordered mind would have scoffed."

On Tue, Jul 17, 2018 at 11:24 AM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at yale.edu>

> I’m pretty sure I’ve heard positive “insane” on sports recap shows to
> describe plays.  Usually as a predicate adjective, though.  Googling “That
> play was insane” pullsl up a lot of relevant hits. There’s this one with a
> musical connection via UrbanDic:
> insane
> Very, very, very talented.
> "Wow the drummer from that band in EyesofRuin is insane!!!
> LH
> > On Jul 17, 2018, at 11:17 AM, Wilson Gray <hwgray at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> >
> > Possibly because his lyrics are "swingin' like insane," to quote a
> > catch-phrase of a StL DJ, back in the '50's. Remember "Crazy, Man,
> Crazy,"
> > by Bill Haley & the Comets?
> >
> > On Tue, Jul 17, 2018 at 10:04 AM Charles C Doyle <cdoyle at uga.edu> wrote:
> >
> >> A voice on NPR just burbled (lauditorily) that a particular individual
> "is
> >> an insane lyricist!"
> >>
> >>

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

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