March 01, 2006

Crazy talk

Tim Leonard recently pointed me to Joel Spolsky's use of the phrase crazy talk. Evaluating applications for summer internships, Joel wrote:

We did get a lot more good applications. Really good applications. Not just kids from Indiana. Students from all over. Illinois. Missouri. Well, OK, maybe not Missouri. Missouri is crazy talk.

Reading this, Tim "wondered what 'x is crazy talk' was taken from". A web search didn't uncover the answer, but he learned that folks over at the Joel on Software Discussion Group have been talking about the same thing. One participant suggests that "It sounds like dialog from an old western." Another agrees that "The way Joel phrased it, it seems like a reference to something.  We're just curious what it's a reference to."

Tim was mainly curious about how we know that a phrase like this is somehow special -- a snowclone or an idiom -- without knowing its source and perhaps without ever having heard it before. For now, I won't try to add anything to what I've written on related topics here, here, here, and here. Those posts are mostly about our hyper-sensitivity to infrequent but striking usages. As I point out, this sensitivity is sometimes an appropriate generalization from a very small number of examples, perhaps as few as one. ('s "statistically improbable phrases" feature aims to imitate this ability.) Arnold Zwicky has called this the Frequency Illusion in the cases where we interpret this feeling quantitatively, concluding that some individual or group uses a word or phrase or construction "all the time" or "hundreds of times", when in fact the real count may be in the low single digits.

The cited posts don't give a satisfactory answer to Tim's question, but at least they connect it to a number of other puzzling phenomena. (If this makes you feel better, as it does me, is it an example of the "Generalization Illusion"?) For now, let's pursue the specific case on the table: crazy talk.

This is certainly an expression that I've heard before. So have many others: Google yields 514,000 hits for {"crazy talk"}, Yahoo gives 523,00 and MSN gives 63,425. These are not enormous numbers -- Google claims 632,00 hits for {"language log"} -- but the phrase is definitely out there. Everything2 has an entry for the phrase "that's just crazy talk", explaining that it's "A useful all-around phrase when the person you're talking to just doesn't make sense. Or else needs to be shut up with a more polite phrase than 'mind your own business'".

It's pretty clear that "crazy talk" is a fixed expression, what people sometimes call a collocation. This is a bit different from an idiom, in that the meaning is pretty much transparent as a function of the meanings of the words that make it up -- unlike "red herring" or "kick the bucket" -- but the phrase is still favored over available alternatives. Thus it would have been surprising, I think, for Joel to have written "Missouri is crazy words". In contrast, we usually say or write "fighting words", not "fighting talk":

  __ words __ talk
crazy __ 49,700 514,000
fighting __ 673,000 252,000

We can also observe that "crazy talk" takes first-word stress (at least in my idiolect), like some other Adjective+Noun fixed expressions such as blackboard, bluebell, high school, as well as cases where the apparent adjective may be doing duty for a noun, such as medical student, etc.

Whatever its analysis, where did the phrase "crazy talk" come from? There are a couple of recent sources that might have been the trigger for some people.

One is William Wyler's 1961 movie The Children's Hour, adapted from Lillian Hellman's 1934 play of the same name. One version of the crucial passage is this:

Martha: There's always been something wrong. Always, just as long as I can remember. But I never knew what it was until all this happened.
Karen: Stop it Martha! Stop this crazy talk!
Martha: You're afraid of hearing it, but I'm more afraid that you.
Karen: I won't listen to you!
Martha: No! You've got to know. I've got to tell you. I can't keep it to myself any longer. I'm guilty!
Karen: You're guilty of nothing!

(The phrase "crazy talk" doesn't occur in the original stage play.)

A more recent source is a 2000 episode of The Simpsons, Bart to the Future. Bart has snuck into an Indian casino, but the casino security men capture him and bring him to the manager's office.

Manager:   If you want to see the future, throw a treasured personal item onto the fire.
           [Bart tosses a small object, which explodes with a bang]                                                                                           
           Not a firecracker!
Bart:      Hey, I bought it from a guy on your reservation.
Manager:   That's Crazy Talk.
Bart:      No, it's true.
Manager:   No, I know, that's my brother, Crazy Talk.  We're all a little worried about him.

But the phrase goes back beyond Bart and Karen. Some dialogue from Martha Gellhorn's 1948 novel Point of No Return ( p. 296)

"He says that he regrets he didn't have a machine gun intead of a jeep. He also says that he is sorry the war is over because if the war were not over he could volunteer to operate a flame thrower. He said that he only killed one German in the war; being a jeep driver he didn't have a chance at them. That's the sort of thing he says."

"That's crazy talk."

"He doesn't sound crazy."

And Cecil B. De Mille's 1908 vaudeville play "The Royal Mounted" includes this haunting passage:

No! I only want a fair chance. I love you on the square and I want you ter gi' me a show. There ain't no one else, is there?
(Moves away from him. Crosses R.)
No, there's no one else. I've got to fight you alone.
Now that's crazy talk. I ain't fightin' you and I don't want to.
(Crossing to her at R.C.)
I'll make it easy as I can for you, Rosa---if you'll only give me the chance---but there ain't ter be no one else, is there?
Not unless someone comes out of the wilderness---and that's not likely.

And skipping many late 19th century citations, there's Josiah D. Canning's 1838 Epistle to a Brother in Virginia:

73 ... the sick I found
74 Rose in delirium around,
75 And many, too, within the bound
76 Of an hour's walk;
77 Their ravings in my ear did sound
78 Like crazy talk.

And ten years earlier, an anonymous (?) story titled Andrew Cleaves, published in 1828 The Atheneum; or, Spirit of the English Magazines:

She wished, when their time came, they might lie half as quiet in their graves as old Andrew did in his, for all their nonsensical crazy talk about his walking o' nights.

Without trying to track the expression any further back, I conclude that crazy talk is a collocation without any particular source, though it may have been re-seeded from time to time by striking examples in popular culture.

[Note that Neil Postman's 1976 book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk established crazy talk as a philosophical term of art, for a "form of collectivized nonsense" that "requires that we be mystified, suspend critical judgment, accept premises without question, and (frequently) abandon entirely the idea that language ought to be connected with reality", even though it "usually puts forward a point of view that is considered virtuous and progressive". Some discussion and quotes can be found here. I believe that Postman's usage is at best loosely connected to the ordinary-language meaning of the term, which seems to me to center around the literal meaning "talk that is crazy, talk that doesn't make sense, nonsense", and includes most examples of what Postman would assign to his contrasting category of "stupid talk".]

[As someone whose father was born and raised in St. Joseph, Missouri, I sympathize with those who were offended by Joel Spolsky's implication that Missouri is an unlikely source for good internship applications. But this is Language Log, not Regional Stereotypes Log.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 1, 2006 08:55 AM