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April 13, 2006

Tiger Woods Has A Whole New Handicap

Tiger WoodsThe s-word reared its ugly head again. "Spaz", that is. A recent noted that Tiger Woods has been criticized for saying that he played like a "spaz".

As you may recall, in a January about reclaiming negative language, I wrote about a California company that was marketing a wheelchair with the brand name Spazz, which was creating an uproar due to the brand name's obvious insensitivity in the UK and New Zealand.

If you'd like to know more of my opinion on naming a wheelchair Spazz, check out this Radio New Zealand .

This same BBC article has three links on the subject of inappropriate language to describe the disabled. In the BBC site for its Ouch! Disability Magazine:

Worst Words Vote

  • - See what 2,053 disabled and non-disabled people have to say about some language that is offensive to the disabled. I think some of the examples will surprise you (Also see image on right.)
  • - Here's a side-by-side comparison of how the choice of top ten Worst Words differed between disabled and non-disabled people who took part in the poll.
  • - The BBC's Ouch! Podcast is a monthly comedy show about disabilities, hosted by Actor Mat Fraser and comedian Liz Carr.

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Posted by William Lozito at April 13, 2006 11:50 AM
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Hmm. I am perhaps a bit sensitive, as my surname (Ditz) has in the last 10 years or so become a synonym for "particularly clueless female". Lately there have been male ditzes sighted. I believe that the evolution is "dizzy blonde" > "ditsy blonde" > "ditzy blonde" > "ditz".

I am quite a bit older than Mr. Woods, but "spazzy" or "spazz" has been been schoolyard slang for "unexpectedly clumbsy" or "physically incompetent" for quite a few decades. It lost the underlying connection to particular medical conditions long ago, judging from my informants. In my youth, (the 1950s and 1960s) "spastic" might have been used for a person with cerebral palsy or muscular sclerosis, but now the actual diagnostic terms are used, or "CP" or "MS". Judging from some of the children I've spoken with, "CP" is mentally rendered seepea, and has no underlying link to "cerebral palsy" -- it just means someone with rather severe movement disorder.

The history of "spaz" is somewhat akin to the terms "moron" or "idiot", which used to have specific diagnostic weight, about a person's level of intellectual functioning. Those words have long lost the diagnostic freight, and now just mean "stupid".

I wonder too if this isn't an instance of the power of dialect, and how a phrase is transgressive in one dialect, but innocuous in another. My favorite illustration is the phrase for that purse-like pouch you strap around your waist. They're advertised as "fanny packs" in the US, which I understand may mean "slang for the female sexual organs" in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. I believe they're called "bum bags" in the UK (and NZ and Oz)--to a speaker of American English, that conjures up a picture of an unwashed, homeless man, clutching a grubby sack.

Elizabeth is correct about the use of fanny down here, though I have to confess I had always been brought up here with the American usage. Odd that I never was exposed to the English usage till I was in my 30s, but I understand my situation may have been exceptional.
   I recently had an exchange about the word idiot (as in idiot savant), and had to come to the conclusion that negative readings are possible. Spaz, down in New Zealand, could be regarded as highly negative; I imagine the exception would be if someone who was mentally incapacitated were to use it him- or herself (akin to the use of the “N word”).

Elizabeth and Jack,

Thank you for your imformative and insightful comments.

Looking for something else, I finally found the reference:

"An early classification scheme proposed by the American Association on Mental Deficiency (Retardation), in 1910.... Three levels of impairment were identified: idiot, individuals whose development is arrested at the level of a 2 year old; imbecile, individuals whose development is equivalent to that of a 2 to 7 year old at maturity; and moron, individuals whose mental development is equivalent to that of a 7 to 12 year old at maturity."

Idiot, imbecile, and moron have all lost their connection to mental retardation.

Nice post! I think i will use it. :)

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