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Spazz and spaz redirect here. For the band, see Spazz . For the song, see Spaz . For a definition of spasticity, see spasticity.

The word spastic is used differently depending on location which has led to some controversy and misunderstanding. Derived via Latin from the Greek spastikos ("drawing in" or "tugging"), the word originally referred to the sudden muscle contractions characteristic of the medical condition spasticity, which underlies spastic diplegia and many other forms of cerebral palsy. But the word in common speech can also be used in a pejorative context. The level of severity depends on whether one understands it as it is used in the United States or the United Kingdom . In the UK it is considered an offensive way to refer to the disabled, while in the US it is more closely associated with hyperactivity or clumsiness and carries few offensive connotations. In India the word spastic is used without negative connotations, with The Spastics Society of India being India’s most noted non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO), working for neuro-muscular and developmental disabilities.

Evolution of the term in the United Kingdom

This medical term "spastic" became used to describe cerebral palsy. The Spastics Society (now called Scope) was a UK charity for people with cerebral palsy, which was founded in 1951.

However, the word began to be used as an insult and became a term of abuse used to imply stupidity or physical ineptness; one who is uncoordinated or incompetent, or a fool. The mental connotation derived from a common misconception that those with any physical disability resulting in spasticity would necessarily also have a mental or developmental disability. It was often colloquially abbreviated to forms such as "spa", "spaz", "spazmoid", "spazzer", "spazmo", "spack", "spackhead", "sped", "spazzy", "spacko", or "spacker".

Its derogatory use grew considerably in the 1980s. This is sometimes attributed to the children's show Blue Petermarker. During the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981), several episodes featured a man with cerebral palsy (described as a "spastic") named Joey Deacon. Phrases such as "joey", "deacon", and "spaz" became popular insults amongst children at that time.

The Spastics Society changed its name to Scope in 1994. The words then gradually dropped out of common usage as the majority of British society came to regard them as offensive and politically incorrect. (Since then, the terms "Scope", "Scoper" or "Scopie" have been used as insults.)

In the mid-1980s, some people attempted to "reclaim" the term. This is the meaning in the Ian Dury and the Blockheads song "Spasticus ", and it is also used in the Ben Elton book Gridlock. There is also a movie called "I'm Spasticus" (a wordplay on "I'm Spartacus"). The group 2NU best known for their early 90s Top 40 song "Ponderous" wrote a song called "Spaz Attack".

The current understanding of the word is well-illustrated by a BBC survey in 2003, which found that "spastic" was the second most offensive term in the UK relating to disability (retard was deemed most offensive) . In 2007, Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussexmarker, described the term as being "one of the most taboo insults to a British ear".

Evolution of the term in the United States

In American slang, the term "spaz" is largely inoffensive, and is generally understood as a casual word for clumsiness, sometimes associated with over excitement, excessive energy, or hyperactivity. Its usage has been documented as far back as the mid 1950s. In 1965, film critic Pauline Kael, explained to her readers, "The term that American teen-agers now use as the opposite of 'tough' is 'spaz'. A spaz is a person who is courteous to teachers, plans for a career..and believes in official values. A spaz is something like what adults still call a square." The New York Times columnist similarly explained to readers that spaz meant "You're strictly from 23-skidoo." Benjamin Zimmer, editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and researcher at the University of Pennsylvaniamarker's Institute for Research in Cognitive Sciences, writes that by the mid 1960s the American usage of the term spaz shifted from "its original sense of 'spastic or physically uncoordinated person' to something more like 'nerdy, weird or uncool person.'" By contrast, in a June 2005 newsletter for "American Dialect Society", Zimmer reports that the "earliest [written] occurrence of uncoordinated "spaz" (as opposed to uncool "spaz")?" is found in Elastik Band's 1965 "undeniably tasteless garage-rock single" "Spazz".

Later in 1978, Steve Martin introduced a character Charles Knerlman, aka "Chaz the Spaz" on Saturday Night Live, in a skit with Bill Murray called "Nerds". Bill Murray later starred in the movie Meatballs which had a character named "Spaz." Both shows portrayed a spaz as a nerd or somebody uncool in a comic setting. Thus, while Blue Peter shaped the modern British understanding of the term, American viewers were being bombarded with a different image. In time, the term spaz, like its counterparts nerd and geek, lost its offensive nature and evolved into a term often used in self-deprecation.

The term occasionally appears in other North American movies or TV series such as Friends and receives a different reaction from British and American audiences. In one episode, Rachel refers to herself as a "laundry spaz" due to her inability to do the laundry. This comment was deemed offensive enough by the British Board of Film Classification to give the episode a 12 rating. Other episodes in the series are rated two levels lower at PG.

The difference in understanding of the term between British and American audiences was highlighted by an incident with the golfer Tiger Woods; after losing the US Masters Tournamentmarker in 2006, he said, "I was so in control from tee to green, the best I've played for years... But as soon as I got on the green I was a spaz." His remarks were broadcast and drew no attention in America. But they were widely reported in England, where they caused offence and were condemned by a representative of Scope and Tanni Grey-Thompson, a prominent paralympian. On learning of the furor over his comments, Woods' representative promptly apologized.

Most Americans were surprised when they learned about the controversy. In fact, at least one American dictionary (Merriam Webster's) makes no reference to cerebral palsy in its definition or word origins. It simply defines "spaz" as a shortening of the word "spastic" and "one who is inept".

"Spaz" products

Multiple products in America use the word Spaz as part of their name.

Controversy arises if products are sold in the UK or other parts of Europe under the same name. In particular the manufacturers and importers of the Spazz wheelchair were criticised by the British charity Scope when they put the wheelchair on sale in the UK. Scope expressed a fear that the usage of the word as an insult would increase again, after a steady decline since the 1980s.

A caffeinated lipbalm created by a police officer is called "SpazzStick." "Spaz-Stix" is the company that produces high end remote control car/plane paints.

An energy drink is called "Spaz Juice" and has a slogan, "all the energy you need to annoy everybody else."

On June 29, 2007, Ubisoft of France pulled one of their games called Mind Quiz: Your Brain Coach, for referring to players who did not perform well at the game as "Super Spastic" which can be construed in the UK as being offensive. The company stated "As soon as we were made aware of the issue we stopped distribution of the product and are now working with retailers to pull the game off the market." Similarly, Nintendo recalled Mario Party 8 in the UK after releasing a version containing the line "turn the train spastic" in its dialogue.

See also


  1. definition of Spaz. Accessed 9/2/08

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