I love etymology, so I couldn’t resist Professor McCoy’s suggestion that we look up the etymology of crazy. As always, I was surprised how much of a connection I found to The Broken Earth Trilogy.
According to Etymonline, my favorite etymology source, crazy has had quite a journey in terms of definition over the years. The word first appeared in the 1570s and meant “diseased or sick.” The definition quickly shifted and by the 1580s, it came to mean “broken, impaired, full of cracks or flaws.” This meaning is derived from the verb craze, which meant “to shatter, crush, break into pieces.” In fact, there is a type of pottery that is created with a technique called crazing. This results in a beautiful pattern of cracks in the glaze of a piece of pottery (pictured above). Both craze and crazy went from their original meaning to having connotations of physical illness, eventually taking on the role we see them in today, which is to mean “not mentally sound: marked by thought or action that lacks reason.” Interestingly, it took almost 300 years for “crazy” to take on this aspect. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why this might be, but I haven’t been able to pinpoint any particular reason. Etymonline hypothesizes that the reason why crazy came to have connotations of mental illness could be because of its original relation to disease, or alternatively because of the idea of breaking and being broken coming to be linked with people’s minds.
This second conjecture has a lot to unpack. The idea that people with mental illness are broken in some way is clearly untrue, which is among the reasons why crazy is not a term that should ever be used as a synonym for legitimate mental illness in any capacity. Dr. Daniel Bader has an excellent blog post on the subject that highlights everything wrong with using crazy, especially as an insult, since it insinuates there is something inherently bad with being mentally ill. I want to make it clear that when I am connecting this etymology to The Obelisk Gate, I am aware of the negative implications of the word and mean no disrespect by it. It is instances like these where I find that language fails us and I wish that we could earth-speak like the stone eaters of Syl Anagist.
However, I think that the original and modified definitions of crazy have many connections to Jemisin’s work. Specifically, I am reminded of this section of The Obelisk Gate:
“He [Alabaster] laughs. This hurts him, too, but it’s a laugh that makes your skin prickle, because it’s the laugh of the Yumenes-Allia highroad. The laugh of a dead node station. Alabaster was never mad; he’s just learned so much that would have driven a lesser soul to gibbering, that sometimes it shows. Letting out some of that accumulated horror by occasionally sounding like a frothing maniac is how he copes. It’s also how warns you, you know now, that he’s about to destroy some additional measure of your naivete. Nothing is ever as simple as you want it to be” (Jemisin 166).
I can’t help but link this idea of Alabaster having seen so much that he is almost driven to madness to the original definition of crazy, the idea of physical shattering. Alabaster’s “craziness,” this habit of his of acting like an insane person as a coping method for all of the knowledge he has, is completely understandable. In this case, perhaps he has become a little bit broken because of the atrocities he has seen and the weight of all of the knowledge he has (not to mention the pressure of being the only non-stone eater person to have this knowledge).
This also reminds of the stress component of earthquakes – there is tensional stress, which pulls faults apart, compressional stress, which pushes them together, and shear stress, which comes from two sides of a fault moving in opposite directions and rubbing up against each other. Alabaster’s particular type of craziness, or being broken, perhaps is best illustrated in these geological terms – the stress he has because of his knowledge and the burden of it has to culminate in something. Geological stress results in an earthquake, Alabaster’s results in the Rifting and the events afterward. Once the earthquake happens, the net stress goes back to zero and takes a lot of time (think geological scale) to become so high that another earthquake happens. I believe Alabaster is trying to do the same thing – reset the world to a zero point in order to fix things, hopefully for a long time, maybe forever.
Alabaster’s knowledge and the hints of insanity that creep from it do result in a sort of cracking, both in himself and physically across the continent of the Stillness. It takes a little bit of craziness (in both senses of the word) to upend the world and try to fix what has been broken.