April 12, 2006

"As soon as I got on the green I was a spaz."

Tiger Woods is being pilloried in the British press for saying that, but I don't think American media have paid any attention to it.

The BBC uses the occasion to take a vote on the worst words referring to disability, some of which I've never seen before. I guess there's a real danger with slang when an American goes to Britain. Some casual slang is heard as very offensive. Is this a one way thing? I don't know of anything the British say that upsets the hell out of us.

UPDATE: Apology and recognition that "spaz" isn't considered offensive in the United States.


Brendan said...

Well, "fag" is a cigarette over there, but I don't recall American gays going apeshit or lodging protests. I'm sorry, but "spaz" just isn't offensive on this side of the Atlantic.

Wade_Garrett said...

Brendan - My all-time favorite episode of Conan O'Brien was when he had Mr. T as a guest, and they did the skit "In the Year 2000." Money quote (by Conan): 'In the year 2000, British cigarettes will march on Parliament . . . demanding to be re-named "butt pirates."'

sully126 said...

When in London, just remember to call your fanny pack a 'bum bag' in order to avoid a little faux pas. To a Brit, fanny refers to a woman's triangle of pubic hair, not her rear end. Otherwise, you risk looking like retard or a spaz...

Mark said...

Brit PC is so ghey.

tiggeril said...

From what I can tell, "cunt" isn't considered nearly the epithet there as it is in the US.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

Bloody hell. Tell them to bugger off. And, in solidarity, you should "disable" the comments.

Dave said...

That's so retarded! And it's gay too!

Ann Althouse said...

We just laugh when they say "fags" for "cigarettes," don't we?

They need to leave our Tiger alone. Losers!

jinnmabe said...

That article is dripping with self importance. "Is the fact that a nation has lost sight of the origins of the word a good or bad thing? Is it harmful or is it genuinely meaningless now?" Yeah, I know you English think you own the language, but language changes, you know? People here have already pointed out a few words that mean different things in the two different countries. So the hell what? They're mad because a guy who grew up in California doesn't speak like a Brit? < This is me rolling my eyes>

Moving on to more important topics, Tiger was a spaz on the green. If he'd putted even competently, he'd have won or at least given Phil a serious run. Weird, because his putting is normally lights out.

MadisonMan said...

Window-licker? Mong? What the heck?

If I heard someone say 'mong', I'd just assume they had mispronounced hmong and I'd be puzzled. Spaz as an insult? News to me.

Townleybomb said...

According to this list, "spastic" is the 15th most offensive word in Brit English. This has put parts of Little Britain in a whole new light for me.

Cunt is No. 1 there, BTW.

Ann Althouse said...

Towleybomb: Interesting! Wanker was said, unbleeped, on "The Apprentice" this week. And "slag"? Worse than "shit"? How funny.

Townleybomb said...

Whoops, the list is now here.

Also, 'pants' refers to 'underpants' in both UK English and Japanese. The Japanese giggle harder when you say that.

Jacob said...

So "Jew" is the 23rd most offensive word in Britain...

Elizabeth said...

My partner grew up a few miles from the Louisiana Spastic School. This was identified by a big roadside sign.

A few blocks from our house, the hospice used to be called The New Orleans Home for the Incurable, also prominently signed.

We used to be so much more blunt.

Nigel Kearney said...

'Cunt' is definitely one example as tiggeril said, but depends on the context.

Also 'Jap' is considered offensive only in the US. It's the equivalent of 'Aussie' everywhere else.

I don't think 'spaz' is that offensive in the UK unless you are ultra-PC.

Michael Farris said...

IME the ratio of American words and expressions that have embarassing meanings in British English is far higher than the reverse.

I was surprised that wanker is really offensive, it just sounds silly (kind of childish) to me, but can and does provoke real anger and offense in the UK.

Then there are of course those delicious faggots (a kind of meatball). One of the most hilarious sites in all of the internets was the apparently serious one for Mr Brain's Faggots (which seems to have fallen down some spider hole), which used to feature the Mr Brains Faggot Family (real name Doody, they beat off stiff competition for the title). At one point, they even talk aobut the different ways they like to eat faggots.

There's also spotted dick, some kind of desert.

I bet a nice dish of faggots followed by some spotted dick would taste almost as good as it sounds.

XWL said...

Personally I thought of Elastik Band's song Spazz (I prefer the double-Z spelling of the word) when hearing about the article.

Couldn't find the lyrics posted anywhere, so I was inspired to transcribe them my own damnself.

(gosh durnit)

Anyone cares to, can see them here.

(The song was originally recorded in 1967, so it's one year off of being great I guess)

37383938393839383938383 said...

How about this one, Ann?

"Taxation without representation. And you must buy our tea."


Drew W said...

My wife uses the term "retarded" to describe something or someone stupid, and I've never been too fond of it. When I hear my ten-year-old daughter using it, I tell her that it’s a hurtful term. To my ear, there isn't enough distance between my wife’s use of the word and its origin as a cruel epithet for mentally retarded people. My having a mentally retarded uncle might have something to do with it, but I’d like to think I’d feel this way regardless. (And this may sound odd coming from a guy who made a joke on this site about the word "unitard" a month or so ago, but I did that in the knowledge that this is not a site read by children. If children were likely to read it, I wouldn't have posted it.)

I have no problem with making politically incorrect comments, but only if I can make a reasonable assumption that the person who hears them isn’t going to take it the wrong way. (Which is why telling a raunchy joke to your friend is different than telling it on the office conference-call.) I don't believe in political correctness, but I do believe in manners.

My daughter gives me a scandalized look when I use the term “Indians” to describe people she’s been taught to call “Native Americans.” I get the sense that she views such words as a historical throwback, as if I were using the term “blackamoors” to describe Black people. (Whoops, I mean African-Americans.)

Although some might hear Tiger Woods’ use of the word “spaz” as I hear my wife’s use of the word “retarded,” I think there’s more distance between its origin as “a person suffering from chronic muscular spasms” -- after hearing and using the word all my life, I finally looked up "spastic" -- and a description of someone who just can’t get their body to perform as they want it to. There’s always fine line with offensiveness. To me, “spaz” doesn’t cross it, but to others, it obviously does.

Years ago, I remember Jerry Lewis reacting very angrily to criticism that the goony faces and awkward physical movements that typified his comedy shtick were actually an imitation of a spastic child. I thought the comparison was a bit hypersensitive.

Even worse, there was an angry letter sent to the NY Times Arts & Leisure section after Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” had been profiled. The letter-writer was offended that Brooks would name a dimwitted local “Mongol,” as a reference to a person being mongoloid (an archaic term for Down’s Syndrome). Of course, the easily-offended reader wasn’t hearing it right -- the character’s name was Mongo. Brooks himself was offended at the reader’s interpretation, and said that the name was a tribute to Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria.

On the other hand, the term “window-licker,” which I’ve never heard before now, strikes me as hilarious. But how to work it into a conversation . . . ?

$CAV3NG3R said...

Coming from a place where we spoke british (aka queens english) most of the time, wanker is the british equivalent of jerkoff. I remember in high school in west africa we used to say wank instead of masturbate. That's probably why wanker is that offensive.

Goesh said...

Yeah, spotted dick pudding - ewww! a leper's penis

Michael Farris said...


I've always understood 'wanker' to mean 'masturbator', but for some reason it just never sounded as offensive as lots of other words for the same concept.

I seem to sort of recall hearing wanker first from Mike Myers, who made it sound funny and cute rather than the potential fist-fight-starter that it is for Brits.

On the other hand, I've heard British men call each other cunts in a good natured way. I can't imagine American men doing that.

Pogo said...

The Brits are so cute when they get incensed over un-PC words. The faux-solidarity WeAreTheWorldness it pretends to espouse is both treacly and dishonest. It's far more comfy to get indignant at a golfer using slang than at terrorists in your midst.

Tiger is an easier target than Yusef, and won't bite back.

Dawn said...

It all boils down to this - Tiger is kicking their collective asses at golf, and they don't like it.


msjones said...

Wondering What is Vilest in Amerispeak

American list?
What rankings would our rank words
Get? Wanker's not one.

Sean E said...

I thought most of the words on the British list were euphemisms to use when you were trying not to swear. Arse? Crap? Bloody? That's they best they can do?

Buncha pussies.

Jeremy said...

Interesting that in that linked article about sensitivity of language, the author has no qualms with writting the N-Word That Shall Not Be Written. That would certainly not fly in America, even in an article about foul language.

Abraham said...

That would certainly not fly in America, even in an article about foul language.

That may be changing. "The Boondocks" cartoon on Adult Swim uses the "N-word" (which I won't reprint because our host considers it unprintable and would delete my post) profligately. I can't see any legitimate justification why a cartoon can say it for entertainment purposes, but one can't say it for academic or argumentative purposes, except cowardice of course.

Pogo said...

The only rule is: Caucasians cannot use the n-word. Ever. That's hate speech. But from anyone else, it's just a word, and its use is OK.

This rule applies to all PC subjects (add "male" where appropriate).

SteveR said...

George Carlin could make a routine out of that.

"Political Correctness cripples discourse, creates ugly language and is generally stupid"

jinnmabe said...

My understanding was that words like "idiot" "imbecile" and "retarded" started out as technical/medical terms and worked their way into the popular lexicon as insults, used that way because they were the accepted technical term. Anyone here over 70 and a doctor and can give me some corroboration on that?

$CAV3NG3R said...

Pogo: As I understand it caucasians can use the N-word but only when out of earshot of any other race.

I guess when the generation that used the N-word to mean whatever it meant then and their sons are dead it'll probably change.

Yeah the cunt thing never really caught on where I grew up. I suppose that's probably due to the conservative nature of that environment, euphemisms usually suffice.

Aside: fag also meant a junior student who did chores for a senior student in secondary school back then. I think that usage is probably archaic now.

Michael Farris said...


I'm white and somehow don't feel oppressed by blacks not wanting me to use the n-word. I don't like that word myself and I'm very happy to not use it.

On the other hand, I do have some understanding of in-group/out-group dynamics. Lesbians can call themselves dykes, blacks can use the n-word about themselves, the disabled can call themselves crips etc. I don't belong to those groups so I don't use those names.

That is (crossing as many t's as possible) when blacks use the n-word they might mean all sorts of things by it, most of them not very bad. Historically, when whites use it, 99.999 % of the time they're degrading someone, or trying to.

Is not being able to use it really such a burden to you?

jeff said...

Visualize a bunch of American high school students on a choir trip to Victoria BC.

See them staying overnight in the gymnasium of a Canadian private high school.

See the headmaster of the school get up and give the American students a lecture on the necessity of "Smoking their fags outside."

We held it in while he was still in the room, but the giggles hit as soon as he left.

Abraham said...

Is not being able to use it really such a burden to you?

Yes! I consider it a burden that I can't even use The Word when trying to discuss usage of the word itself. If people are going to take offense even at nonpejorative use, then I see no reason to show any solicitation to their offense.

Pogo said...

Re: Is not being able to use it really such a burden to you?

Michael, the burden inheres in the unintended consequences of forbidding speech, whether by goverment or PC fiat

1. The favored groups are infantilized, and forever on need a federal or school Mommy to protect them from the Bad Men Who Say Bad Words. They are not fit for survival in the real world.

2. Such prohibitions often become forbidden fruit, prompting an escalation in their use. Bland words are rarely so used.

3. The essence of a moral option is that it is freely chosen. Coercion of speech is not moral but mere compliance. You have not created better humans, just well-behaved pets. Best learn to stay away from the teeth, my friend.

reader_iam said...

My daughter gives me a scandalized look when I use the term “Indians” to describe people she’s been taught to call “Native Americans.”

Last year, our son's preschool teacher informed us that the use of "Indian-style," with reference to a specific sitting position, was inappropriate. The term we are to use is "criss-cross apple sauce."

(Native American-style won't do, either. I asked. What, you thought I could resist?)

reader_iam said...

I have to say that I don't like the word spaz and never use it (same goes for "retard" or "retarded," though I think those seem worse because they're more explicit). However, I truly think that nowadays, when most people here use "spaz," they really aren't relating it to disability anymore.

That didn't used to be true, by the way, at least in my experience. Back in the '70s, when I was in middle school and high school, kids using it often made "spastic" gestures in conjunction with using the term. (Just as they would sometimes use funny speech to go with 'tard.) That's probably where my aversion to the term "spaz" comes from.

But I haven't seen anyone do that in a couple of decades.

$CAV3NG3R said...

Pogo: I agree with your points about infantilization and such but the problem is in the transition of usage. As much as we all like to think we are intelligent and rational enough to know and tease out the subtleties involving issues, the point remains that as long as there are people alive who witnessed firebombs and maybe even lynchings it's pretty difficult to sanitize words and have discussions that doesn't bring back memories.

The aforementioned reaction may be considered puerile as rational discourse is supposed to be dispassionate but the reality is that not everyone can let go of images and that's why I opine ever so humbly that with time the word will lose its potency. I think we are in transition now with blacks using the word themselves. Although some try to excuse the usage by claiming that what they say is a variation on the word (a la **gga not **gger) which they've imbued with an altogether different meaning (a lame excuse in my opinion).

Pogo said...

Re: the transition of usage

Scavenger,I agree with you. My inital post (the one that garnered the pious chastening from Michael) was a response to Abraham's concern that "I can't see any legitimate justification why a cartoon can say it for entertainment purposes, but one can't say it for academic or argumentative purposes." I invoked the hypocricy rule: Whites Must Not Speak About Anything At All For Fear Of Offending.

I agree that there are "fightin' words" that deserve societal condemnation. But I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that the n-word is so egregiously harmful, yet black speech, songs, and movies are peppered with it. Bollocks.

Michael Farris said...


You misunderstood me. I grew up when segregation was still a fresh memory (school desegregation hit when I was in elementary school), around people (not in my family, thankfully) who used the word with casual malice. I didn't like anything about that, and decided not to use it.

Perhaps you would be brave enough to tell me where your sensitive spots are so I can take some verbal potshots at them (I'm very good at it when I want to be) as a purely academic exercise in breaking with PC nicey-nice doctrine.

I'm game if you are.

Pogo said...

Re: "Perhaps you would be brave enough to tell me where your sensitive spots are so..."

Sure! I absolutely HATE it when people send me large checks in the mail. Nothing infuriates me more. E-mail me for the address (it's in an account in Nigeria, where bank officer Massoud Banofo has apparently died, and your check will help settle his million dollar account).

2. I have a soft warm fuzzy spot on my tummy ....wait, that's my cat.

Sigivald said...

"I voted for retard - I hate it when people mistake my CP for some kind of mental deficiency. I'm sure most of 'us' experience this."

Interesting that this guy is not upset about the word "retard" so much as he's upset about being called one because he has a non-mental disability and people can't tell the difference.

Would he be less upset if people called him "stupid" instead? The insult is not in the word, but in calling him anything ill-meant, no?

(And then there's the other guy upset about handicapped because he prefers a term specific to being a paraplegic.

To which I reply only "suck it up, Nancy". Christ, I've often thought that if I end up in a wheelchair somehow, I'll call myself a cripple. To see people get upset about "disabled" is... mindboggling.)

(Codeword: zlbema, which sounds like it ought to be a word in Croatian or something, for something very interesting or very embarrassing.)

ottotex said...

Regarding "spastic", referring to Webster's Dictionary shows that it may be used as either a noun or adjective. As a noun it refers to a particular condition. As an adjective it refers to a manner of muscular spasms. I intend to continue to use the word within the proper context (I really can't remember the last time I did use it, but will make a point of including it as much as possible now). So my Anglo friends, relax, take a breath, have a nice steaming plate of haggis, do a little fog-bathing, it is not worth all of this.

Goatwhacker said...

Last year, our son's preschool teacher informed us that the use of "Indian-style," with reference to a specific sitting position, was inappropriate. The term we are to use is "criss-cross apple sauce."

That is truly awful. Even if they find the term offensive, couldn't they come up with a less nauseating alternative?

PS: Freudian slip, when I typed in my user name, I accidently put in "goatwhancker". I think I'm subconsciously offensive to myself.

reader_iam said...

Apparently not. My son still uses that phrase.

For my part, it makes me think of a silly game from childhood which gave one the excuse to pinch, blow on (oops! watch out for that spittle!), and semi-headlock (or hug, depending) another kid:

Criss-cross, applesauce,
Spiders crawling up your back!
Spider bite here, Spider bite here.
Cool breeze, cool breeze,
Tight squeeze.

Who says life was better before kids started watching TV or playing video games all the live-long day?


vh: mebdo

"Maybe I do, maybe I don't" seriously think life is better for kids now.


emmarosenthal said...

I've lived and traveled throughout the United States my whole life, and SPAZ has ALWAYS been an insult. It's one of the first hate words we learn, on the playground.

I'm so sick of the constant refusal of people without disabilities to recognize their own bigotry and the imposition that bigotry has on those of us with disabilities, and with society as a whole. (When we exclude or ostracize anyone, we all lose the benefit of their full participation.)

The term "spaz" gets a stronger reaction in the UK than the US, not because it is less offensive to people with disabilities, but because there is generally greater indifference to the rights and dignity of people with disabilities in the US.


The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000.


Offensive Slang One who is considered clumsy or inept.

-Emma Rosenthal