April 13, 2006

A brief history of "spaz"

Tiger Woods landed in hot water after he made this comment in a post-round interview with CBS at the Masters Tournament:

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.

Tiger's use of spaz, an epithet derived from spastic, caused nary a ripple in the U.S., but when it hit British newspapers there was a significant uproar. "Extraordinarily insensitive," said Lewine Mair in The Telegraph. "Woods sure to regret remark," read the headline in The Scotsman. "Some interpreted this as a grievous insult to handicapped people all over the world," said The Independent. "I don't think he meant to be that offensive but it's something nobody in his position should be saying," Paralympian Dame Tanni Grey Thompson told the BBC.

Tiger quickly apologized, saying through a spokesman that he "meant nothing derogatory to any person or persons and apologizes for any offense caused." But it's doubtful that he realized he had anything to apologize for until the firestorm in the British press. So how did the word spaz become innocuous playground slang in the U.S. but a grave insult in the U.K.?

There's no question that spaz is a shortened and altered form of spastic, a term historically used to describe people with spastic paralysis, a condition that disables the part of the nervous system controling motor coordination. (The congenital form of spastic paralysis is now commonly known as cerebral palsy.) Spastic and its clipped form spaz (sometimes spelled spas or spazz but always pronounced [spæz], influenced by spasm and spasmodic) eventually developed a contemptuous sense to describe not just those afflicted with spastic paralysis but anyone who lacks coordination or physical competence. In the U.S., a verb form of spaz, also appearing as spaz out, came to refer to losing physical control or simply acting "weird" or "uncool."

It's unclear how long these derogatory senses have been kicking around, since they were evidently taboo from early on and considered unfit for publication. (As the erstwhile Oxford English Dictionary editor Robert W. Burchfield wrote in a note appended to the entry for spastic, the epithet "is generally condemned as a tasteless expression, and is not common in print.") Many people report that spaz, meaning a clumsy or foolish person, was in common use in the mid- to late '50s here in the U.S. In a discussion on the alt.usage.english newsgroup, Joe Fineman (Caltech class of '58) reproduced this journal entry he wrote in 1956, in a section on the language of Caltech students:

SPAZ, n.R (shortened from _spastic_) 1. _Obsolete._ A person lacking in the common social skills & virtues. See TWITCH. 2.
To surprise a person in a way that causes him to take some time to react. v.R

(The "R" means "regional or national" — i.e., I was aware at the time that this was not just Caltech slang. The noun was, of course, obsolete only at Caltech, where it had been replaced by the allusive "twitch".)

The term may have already been on its way out at Caltech, but both the noun and verb were catching on in various parts of the country in the late '50s. The earliest print reference cited by the OED is actually for the verb, even though the noun form must have come first:

1957 Hammond (Indiana) Times 6 Nov.B2/6 Jewelers, furriers, and furniture dealers go through similar merchandising tortures whenever Wall Street spazzes.

This usage may have been deemed acceptable by the Hammond Times editors because it doesn't allude directly to someone with spastic paralysis but instead figuratively extends the term to the uncontrolled ups and downs of Wall Street. And when the noun spaz finally began to be used in mainstream print publications in the mid-'60s, it was used in a sense well removed from spastic. Here is the earliest cite in the OED, from film critic Pauline Kael in 1965, along with another cite I found from that year in a New York Times column by Russell Baker:

1965 P. KAEL I lost it at Movies III. 259The 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.

"Observer: America's New Class System," New York Times, Apr. 11, 1965, p. E14
Your teen-age daughter asks what you think of her "shades," which you are canny enough to know are her sunglasses, and you say, "Cool," and she says, "Oh, Dad, what a spaz!" (Translation: "You're strictly from 23-skidoo.")

So by the time Kael and Baker noticed teenagers using spaz, the sense had already shifted to 'uncool person,' without reference to lack of motor coordination. But that doesn't mean the 'clumsy' sense, with echoes of spastic, was no longer in use at the time. The earliest public attestation that I know of for the uncoordinated sense of spaz is the undeniably tasteless garage-rock single "Spazz" by The Elastik Band (Atco #6537, Nov. 1967), included in the box set Nuggets: Original Artyfacts from the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968. (This is also the earliest example I know of for the double-z spelling of the noun spazz.) The crude but catchy refrain goes:

I said, get offa the floor, get offa the floor, boy,
People gonna think, yes they're gonna think, people gonna think you're a spazz.

It's still baffling how this single ever got released by a major record label, and unsurprisingly it ended up receiving very little airplay. (Besides the dubious use of spazz, DJs were no doubt also wary of the explicit drug reference in the lyrics: "But when you turn around some joker slipped you LSD.")

In any case, the clumsy or inept meaning of spaz remained mostly on the playground until the late 1970s, when it began seeping into American popular culture. In 1978, Saturday Night Live started running occasional sketches starring "The Nerds," with Bill Murray as Todd DiLamuca and Gilda Radner as Lisa Loopner. On two shows that year (Apr. 22 and Nov. 4), host Steve Martin joined in, playing the character Charles Knerlman, or "Chaz the Spaz" as he was known to Todd and Lisa. (A side note: in one of the sketches, "Nerds Science Fair," Chaz the Spaz says to Lisa, "That's a fabulous science fair project... not!" Though this was hardly the first use of "not" for sarcastic negation, it may have laid the groundwork for usage in the "Wayne's World" sketches and movies a decade or so later.) A year after the SNL sketches in 1979, Bill Murray starred in the summer-camp comedy Meatballs, which featured a stereotypically nerdy character played by Jack Blum called "Spaz."

For someone like Tiger Woods who came of age in the '80s (and who, incidentally, is on record as saying that another Bill Murray movie, Caddyshack, is his all-time favorite), the American usage of spaz had long lost any resonance it might have had with the epithet spastic. This is not the case in Great Britain, however, where both spastic and spaz evidently remain in active usage as derogatory terms for people with cerebral palsy or other disabilities affecting motor coordination. A BBC survey ranked spastic as the second-most offensive term for disabled people, just below retard. (Spaz does not appear on the list, though presumably it was just considered a variant form of spastic.) The BBC attributes the British resurgence of the epithet to publicity in the early '80s surrounding a man with cerebral palsy named Joey Deacon, particularly his appearance on the children's television show Blue Peter in 1981. The word spaz and other variants like spazmo became firmly connected with Deacon among British youth, according to the BBC report.

All of this helps explain the reaction Tiger's comments engendered in the U.K. press. It would be helpful for British golf fans (and activists for the disabled) to know, however, that Tiger grew up with Bill Murray, not Blue Peter, and he was no doubt oblivious to the cultural resonances the term might have had across the Pond.

[Update #1: Some additional insight from Chris Brew:

Growing up as a mildly physically handicapped teenager in British boys' private schools, I can report that 'spaz' and 'spastic' were routine in the same "lacking in common social skills and virtues" sense that they were being used at Caltech. Joe Fineman's gloss is brilliantly exact for how I recall it being used, but it is a while ago and I don't have a journal entry. This would be late 60's and early 70's.

When it crossed people's minds that I actually was a spastic, they were usually surprised and bit embarrassed by having said something with a sense that they hadn't thought of. Then, depending on testosterone levels, whether they liked me, and how polite they were, they either apologised or didn't. But I knew that they knew that they felt they should have. So it must have been reasonably offensive, but the Caltech sense was there too.

Also, I'd hope to have seen some reference to the wonderful Ian Dury's Spasticus Autisticus. This gives another sidelight on how Brits would react to 'spaz' (lyrics, Dury obituary). This is a deliberately confrontational piece, which was written for the Year of the Disabled, and banned from radio play for its trouble.

I should note that Joey Deacon's appearance on Blue Peter also occurred during the Year of the Disabled (1981). I don't recall any pop-cultural events connected with that commemoration in the States, however.]

[Update #2: Kellen of The Definitive Truth points out that spastic also ranks highly on the BBC's "ranked list of rudeness" that Mark Liberman wrote about. Turns out it's slightly less offensive than twat and piss off, and slightly more offensive than slag and shit.]

[Update #3: Caity Taylor writes:

There used to be a charity in the UK called the Spastic Society for people with cerebral palsy. Because of the offensive use of spastic, spaz and spakka (on Wearside in the north east of England, at least), they had to change the charity's name. It's now called Scope. This hasn't really had the desired effect though: people have merely gained a new insult: scopers. ]

[Update #4: The blogger Interrobang, who has cerebral palsy, shares an anecdote similar to Chris Brew's at The Interroblog (cross-posted here).]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at April 13, 2006 07:38 PM