Spastic (word)

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In medicine, the adjective spastic refers to an alteration in muscle tone affected by the medical condition spasticity, which is a well-known symptomatic phenomenon seen in patients with a wide range of central neurological disorders, including spinal cord injury, cerebral palsy (for example, spastic diplegia), stroke, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and multiple sclerosis (MS),[1] as well as conditions such as "spastic colon." The word is derived via Latin from the Greek spastikos ("drawing in", "tugging" or "shaking uncontrollably").

Colloquially, the noun spastic, originally a medical term, is now pejorative; though severity of this differs between the United States and the United Kingdom. Disabled people in the United Kingdom often consider "spastic" to be one of the most offensive terms related to disability.[2][3]

UK and Ireland[edit]

The medical term "spastic" came into use to describe cerebral palsy.[4] The Scottish Council for the Care of Spastics was founded in 1946, and the Spastics Society, an English charity for people with cerebral palsy, 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: a person who is uncoordinated or incompetent, or a fool.[5] It was often colloquially abbreviated to shorter forms such as ‘spaz’.

Although the word has a much longer history, its derogatory use grew considerably in the 1980s and this is sometimes attributed to the BBC children's TV show Blue Peter;[6] during the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981), several episodes of Blue Peter featured a man named Joey Deacon with cerebral palsy, who was described as a "spastic". Phrases such as "joey", "deacon", and "spaz" became widely used insults amongst children at that time.[7]

In 1994, the same year that Conservative MP Terry Dicks referred to himself in a House of Commons debate as "a spastic with cerebral palsy",[8] the Spastics Society changed its name to Scope. The word "spastic" has been largely erased from popular English usage[citation needed] and is deemed unacceptable to use outside of specific medical contexts, thus reducing stigmatisation of the condition.[6] Some UK schoolchildren adopted a derogatory adaptation of the Spastic Society's new name, "scoper".[9][10] 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 anyone with a disability. (The word "retard" was deemed most offensive in the US and other countries).[3] In 2007, Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussex, described the term as being "one of the most taboo insults to a British ear".[2]

The video game Mario Party 8 features a scene of the board Shy Guy Perplex Express where the character Kamek casts a spell to switch train cars, being "Magikoopa magic! Turn the train spastic! Make this ticket tragic!" Because of this, Mario Party 8 was recalled in the UK but was later rereleased, replacing spastic with erratic.[11]

United States[edit]

In American slang, the term ‘spaz’ has evolved from a derogatory description of people with disabilities[citation needed], and is generally understood as a casual word for clumsiness, otherness, sometimes associated with overexcitability, excessive startle response ("jumpiness"), excessive energy, involuntary or random movement, or hyperactivity. Some of these associations use the symptoms of cerebral palsy and other related disabilities as insults[citation needed].

Its usage has been documented as far back as the mid-1950s.[12] In 1965, film critic Pauline Kael, hypothesised that, "The term that American teenagers now use as the opposite of 'tough' is 'spaz'."

Benjamin Zimmer, editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, and researcher at the University of Pennsylvania'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'."[13] In a June 2005 newsletter for "American Dialect Society", Zimmer reports that the "earliest [written] occurrence of uncoordinated ‘spaz’ he could find" is found in The Elastik Band’s 1967 "undeniably tasteless, garage-rock single" – "Spazz".[14]

Later in 1978, Steve Martin introduced a character Charles Knerlman, a.k.a. "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".[15] Both shows portrayed a "spaz" as a nerd, or somebody uncool in a comic setting, reinforcing the more casual use of the term in the United States by using it in a popular comedy.[12]

The term still occasionally appears in North American movies or TV series such as Friends as a mildly pejorative word. As such it 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 competently do the laundry which directly relates to the original meaning about physical ability. 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 a step lower at PG.[16] Similarly, Rugrats: Tales from the Crib Snow White got a PG rating based on Angelica calling Kimi "Spazzy".[17]

The difference in appreciation of the term between British and American audiences was highlighted by an incident with the golfer Tiger Woods; after losing the US Masters Tournament 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 the United Kingdom, where they caused offence and were condemned by a representative of Scope and Tanni Grey-Thompson, a prominent paralympian. On learning of the furore over his comments, Woods' representative promptly apologized.[18][19]

Shortly after Weird Al Yankovic's song "Word Crimes" was released, Yankovic stated that he had been unaware that the word "spastic" used in the song is "considered a highly offensive slur by some people", particularly in the United Kingdom, and apologized for its presence in his lyrics.[20]

Lizzo's 2022 song "Grrrls" included the word "spaz". This was met with negative criticism and requests to remove the ableist content from the lyrics.[21] After the backlash, Lizzo posted her stance against derogatory language and has since announced a new version of "Grrrls" with new lyrics.[22][23] Similarly, Beyoncé's 2022 song "Heated" from her seventh studio album Renaissance included the word, which was also met with criticism before the word was eventually removed from the song.[24]


A historical Australian road sign encouraging drivers to watch out for "Spastic Pedestrians". The sign is no longer in official use.

In Australian English, for some time, terms such as "spastic" and "crippled" were considered the proper words to describe persons with various disabilities and even appeared on traffic signs warning drivers of such persons near the road. More recently, these terms have fallen out of use and replaced with the more socially acceptable and generic "disabled". The word "spastic" became so negatively loaded that The Spastic Society of Victoria had to change their name to Scope.[25]

Products including the term "spaz"[edit]

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

Controversy arises if products are sold in the UK 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.[26] Scope expressed a fear that the usage of the word as an insult would increase again, after a steady decline since the 1980s.[27]

A caffeinated lip balm created by a police officer is called "SpazzStick."[28]

The Transformers Power Core Combiners line of robot toys was to include a character named "Spastic". Hasbro, the makers of Transformers, said that it would not release "Spastic" in the UK. This did not stop vocal British fans from alerting various news outlets, eventually resulting in the name being changed for all markets to the less-offensive "Over-Run". The online biography for another Transformer, Strafe, originally described him as "spastic", but was changed to "twitchy" when the controversy erupted.[citation needed]

On 29 June 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". 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."[29] One of the playable characters in the Jazz Jackrabbit series of games, a brother of the eponymous main character, is named "Spaz" (introduced in Jazz Jackrabbit 2). Similarly, Nintendo recalled Mario Party 8 in the UK after releasing a version containing the line "turn the train spastic" in its dialogue.[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Chang, Eric; Ghosh, Nilasha; Yanni, Daniel; Lee, Sujin; Alexandru, Daniela; Mozaffar, Tahseen (2013). "A Review of Spasticity Treatments: Pharmacological and Interventional Approaches". Critical Reviews in Physical and Rehabilitation Medicine. 25 (1–2): 11–22. doi:10.1615/CritRevPhysRehabilMed.2013007945. PMC 4349402. PMID 25750484.
  2. ^ a b Murphy, M Lynne (28 February 2007). "spastic, learning disability". Separated by a Common Language. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  3. ^ a b BBC (2003). "Worst Word Vote". Ouch. Archived from the original on 20 March 2007. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  4. ^ "The Economist in the Twentieth Century". The Economist. Vol. 173. Economist Newspaper Limited. University of Michigan. 1954. p. 472. Retrieved 31 March 2016. CHRISTY BROWN is not strictly a spastic. But the word has now come to be used to cover all forms of cerebral palsy — the medical term for the effects produced by some types of brain maldevelopment or by brain injury at birth.
  5. ^ Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989.
  6. ^ a b Smith, Raymond A. (28 October 2013). Global HIV/AIDS Politics, Policy, and Activism: Persistent Challenges and Emerging Issues. Vol. 93. ABC-CLIO. p. 2. ISBN 978-0-313-39946-6.
  7. ^ Rose, Damon (13 April 2006). "The s-word". BBC News. Retrieved 23 July 2007.
  8. ^ Hansard. "House of Commons Hansard", Column 544, on 11 May,
  9. ^ "Disabled face rising levels of abuse, says charity boss". The Times. ISSN 0140-0460. Retrieved 3 May 2022.
  10. ^ Tom Dalzell; Terry Victor (27 November 2014). The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English. Routledge. p. 672. ISBN 978-1-317-62512-4.
  11. ^ Sliwinski, Alexander (27 July 2007). "Non-'spastic' Mario Party 8 returns Aug. 8 to Europe". Weblogs, Inc. Archived from the original on 18 August 2007. Retrieved 26 August 2010.
  12. ^ a b Zimmer, Benjamin (5 February 2007). "A brief history of 'spaz'". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 31 October 2007.
  13. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (13 April 2006). "Parents will never be cool". Language Log. University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 31 October 2007.
  14. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (23 June 2005). "spaz(z), n." Newsletter. American Dialect Society. Retrieved 31 October 2007.
  15. ^ "Meatballs (1979)". IMDb. Retrieved 14 August 2009.
  16. ^ Hoyle, Ben (24 June 2009). "British Board of Film Classification tightens age rating guidelines". Times Online. London, UK. Retrieved 25 June 2009.
  17. ^ "Rugrats: Tales from the Crib Snow White". BBFC. Retrieved 28 October 2013.
  18. ^ "Agent: Tiger sorry for 'spaz' remark". 13 April 2006. Archived from the original on 21 April 2006. Retrieved 20 September 2021.
  19. ^ "Tanni criticises "stupid" Tiger". BBC Sport. 12 April 2006. Retrieved 17 August 2007.
  20. ^ Tucker, Rebecca (21 July 2014). "Weird Al apologizes for offending with "spastic" lyric in Word Crimes parody". National Post. Retrieved 26 July 2014.
  21. ^ "Fans ask Lizzo to remove song over offensive lyric". BBC News. 13 June 2022. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  22. ^ "Lizzo is changing the lyrics to her 'Grrrls' single following criticism over ableism". NBC News. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  23. ^ "Lizzo changes lyrics of new song 'Grrrls' to remove 'ableist slur'". TODAY. Retrieved 14 June 2022.
  24. ^ Adekaiyero, Ayomikun (1 August 2022). "Beyoncé confirms she will remove a lyric from her new album 'Renaissance' following backlash that it's 'ableist' and 'deeply offensive'". Insider Inc. Archived from the original on 1 August 2022. Retrieved 1 August 2022.
  25. ^ "Why the words matter". 13 September 2011. Retrieved 6 June 2021.
  26. ^ "James Meek: You're better off with a Spazz". the Guardian. 16 October 2005. Retrieved 13 June 2022.
  27. ^ "Disabled outrage over wheelchair called "The Spazz"". The Daily Record. Glasgow, Scotland. Archived from the original on 20 December 2005.
  28. ^ "SpazzStick dot com: The world's only caffeinated lip balm!". Retrieved 7 June 2007.
  29. ^ "Brain game pulled over 'offence'". BBC News. 29 June 2007. Retrieved 29 June 2007.
  30. ^ "Mario's Party ended for saying "spastic"". Computer and Video Games. Retrieved 16 July 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)