A euphemism is a phrase or word that politely or vaguely describes someone or something. In terms of describing someone as crazy, there are enough euphemisms to drive you batty. It’s also notable that most mental health professionals resent the term crazy because it has negative connotations. They may not use euphemisms but instead stick to the diagnostic terms of a person’s mental illness. Alternately, they may refer to a person’s mental health issues as a disease, rather than using crazy to describe a person’s behavior.
Crazy in itself is a hard word to define, since many people use it in exaggerated form to denote a momentary mental lapse or a feeling of stress. “You are driving me crazy,” is code for saying, “You’re making me angry," or “You’re annoying me.” People with mental illness may actually refer to themselves as crazy, but plenty of people without actual illness do so too.
How polite a euphemism for crazy is often used to depend on social ranking. For instance, Howard Hughes was frequently referred to as eccentric, rather than being called a loony. Some of the more negative terms for insanity were used toward those of poorer economic standing. As many point out, eccentricity is affordable in the rich, but is ill afforded by those of the poor and middle class, perhaps accounting for the different terms.
There are huge numbers of euphemisms for going insane, but some refer more to a person's level of intelligence. For instance the phrase, "the lights are on but nobody’s home," more likely suggests that a person has mental deficits rather than a person who is insane. Similarly the following phrases may suggest low IQ rather than insanity:
- A few bricks short of a load
- Five cans short of a six-pack
- Not firing on all cylinders
- An olive short of a pizza
- Four quarters short of a dollar
For actual euphemisms that refer to insanity, there are many to choose from. A person who is crazy may be labeled nuts, kooky, loony, an oddball, a space cadet, mad, a basket case, a wreck, potty or loopy. These last two are more familiar in the UK than in the US. In addition to one or two word descriptions, there are many phrases expressing general nuttiness. These include:
Although euphemisms are generally meant to be vague, many of these are quite pointed and hurtful. Applied to a person with an actual mental illness or a person of lower IQ, they are about as kind as calling a person any other kind of name. They at once reduce the person’s illness to a humorous phrase, and additionally show no pity or empathy for what can be legitimate and extensive suffering. Mental health professionals may be right when correcting others about using such phrases, especially when they are used to describe those truly in need of professional care. At the very least, perhaps these terms are best used in metaphoric, self-referential, and exaggerated ways rather than to actually refer to someone who is ill.