Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Stuff that you never realized was offensive

Since moving to the UK, I've learned lots of things.
There are plenty of words that are used differently between cultures.

When Ross and I were first dating, I remember going to Target with him.  We were walking along and I spotted some super-cute baby shoes.  I turned to him and said, "How freakin' cute are these?!"
Ross did a sort of double-take with wide eyes and looked at me questioningly.  He acted like I'd said something weird and offensive.  I sort of had.  It's said here, but it's not the tame replacement for the other "f" word that it's seen as in the US.  Ross says that he is still shocked when he hears it.  

But that word isn't the one I want to talk about today.
Today I want to talk about the word "Spazz".

Does anyone else remember the sketch "Geek, Dweeb, or Spazz" from SNL?  I couldn't find a clip on You Tube, but I found this transcript for your reading pleasure.

I remember thinking it was hilarious when it first aired.  I would have been a teenager.  My brother and I giggled and categorized people we knew into each of the three categories.  I didn't think a thing of these names.  They were pretty tame.  (Looking back there's definitely a use of the word "homo" that would give me pause in a way it didn't back then...)  Americans in general have gotten much more careful about words that are used (rightly so!).  Using "gay" as an insult is frowned upon these days.  Check out this article about athletes working to combat homophobia in sports.  The term "retarded" as a description of something lame or stupid comes under fire regularly.  This campaign reaches out to people, particularly young celebrities, to encourage them to think about the words they are using.  This is all awesome.  Words have power.  Things that are said and written matter.  

The word "spazz", however had never hit my radar like those words.  It isn't uncommon for an American to describe themselves as "a total spazz"- generally after a clumsy accident while over-excited.  I always thought it was fairly innocuous.  Here in the UK however its a pretty offensive thing to say.  I asked Ross if it was on par with, or more or less offensive than calling someone "a retard".  He instantly responded that it is far worse.  When I asked why, he had a hard time verbalizing it.  At first all he could tell me was "Because it is!"  

After some discussion, he said that it is particularly jarring because it is a very un-politically correct term- sort of like using the "n" word.  Now that certainly gets my hair up.  I never realized!  Yuck! 

It all dates back to the fact that "spastic" was used to describe someone with Cerebral Palsy.  Initially, this wasn't offensive and the charity The Spastics Society was founded.   The term began to be used in a derogatory manner and the charity eventually changed it's name to SCOPE in 1994.  

The International Year of Disabled Persons was an event organized by the United Nations for 1981.  It was an attempt to raise awareness about the inequality faced by disabled people.  The organizers approached Ian Dury (a singer/songwriter who is hugely more famous in the UK than the US and who suffered from polio as a child) to support the event and he was outraged.  He thought it was patronizing and insensitive to disabled people to imply that they would all be ok by 1982.  He as a provocateur by nature and decided to write an in-your-face song that was part battle cry.  This song was called Spasticus Autisticus.  Dury saw it as "reclaiming" the word that had been used as an insult (like some of Richard Pryor's work).
The song was deemed "offensive to polite sensibilities" by the BBC and subsequently banned.  It's an angry anthem, full of Dury's signature word play.  Dury said it was the second best song he ever wrote, even though the outrage it provoked had a hugely negative impact on his career.  

So there's your food for thought for the day.  Some words aren't as harmless as you think.

Here's an interesting blog post on the difference between the two culture's perceptions of this word:
A comedian's perspective:


  1. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4902432.stm

    I've never heard #3 and #4 and #6 is just odd.

  2. I've heard #4 used here in the UK. It always makes me twitch. I asked Ross about #4 and he's not heard it. When I asked about #6, he said the poll was probably asked of people who were in wheelchairs and that they don't like when people say patronizing things like "you're so brave". I think that makes sense.

  3. OMG OMG OMG!!! I say "spaz" all the time! I'm sure I've used it while in the UK, no one said anything! Vernon thinks my accent and the words I use are cute, and if I say something "wrong" he chalks it off as, "she's american". UGH! I had NO idea it was a word pertaining to the disabled... I never say the "r" word. Good grief! And here I throw a fit every time he tells me he had Faggots and Mash for dinner. SO GLAD I found your blog! :)

  4. Kimberly, Glad to be of service. I was totally shocked too when I found out how offensive it is. I never knew! I bet most Americans don't...

  5. Kimberly

    That's because the word isn't that highly frowned upon here in the UK, and it certainly is not a patch on the word 'Retard'.

    You often find somebody who is a little clumsy or forgetful will refere to themselves as a 'spaz' I have even heard the word used by people who suffer disabilities when they playfully regard themselves. As it has much less stigma attached to it in this day and age. It's quite similar to when somebody regards themselves as fat after having eaten alot of chocolate.

    Obviously, using the word negetively toward somebody isn't going to make them feel very nice. But that applies to ANY curse word. It's often a playful word, used amongst people who know each other well enough to take it as just that.