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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 April 2006, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
The s-word
By Damon Rose
Editor of BBC disability website Ouch!

Tiger Woods
Woods has apologised
Golfer Tiger Woods has been criticised for saying he played like 'a spaz'. Can using the word ever be right?

Two years ago I was involved in a linguistic incident at work. I called a disabled colleague a spaz after hearing he'd spilt coffee over yet another expensive bit of computer kit.

My colleague laughed it off. It was a friendly bit of banter - spaz in this case meaning I thought he was being a bit of a stereotype like the helpless disabled people you used to see in telethons and charity posters.

I use the term with irony as someone who was regularly called a "spaz" in the school playground, though I'm visually impaired and not what we once called "a spastic".

To confuse the issue, a non-disabled colleague had overheard and told me that she found that term offensive and thanked me not to use it in front of her. I was offended that she was offended because I didn't feel it was her place to be offended... after all, it's not her word and she wouldn't have been taunted with it.

Bigger punch

There is a history of minority groups reclaiming words once used against them. Gay people refer to each other as queer or queens. Black people use nigger in a friendly way. It's about humour, irony and taking the sting out of once powerful and hurtful taunts. It ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it.

So what did Tiger Woods mean when 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."

Ouch! editor Damon Rose
Spaz has become synonymous with useless incompetence, the type you see in disabled people portrayed badly on TV
Damon Rose
He was describing a poor performance. A flawed performance. An impaired performance. Many e-mails to the Ouch! website on Tuesday were from people wanting to point out that spaz means something different in America. "It just means idiot," one reader wrote. Idiot with an etymological nod towards spasticity though?

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?

ADAPT is America's biggest grassroots disability rights organisation. I rang round some of their members and found out that they didn't even know about the Woods story as it wasn't reported as widely over there. But they did have views on the s-word.

"When people say 'you're such a spaz' they're talking about someone with cerebral palsy," says Nancy Salandra from Philadelphia ADAPT. "People use it all the time but they are wrong. It's part of the language now, like retard, but it doesn't make it right."

"I would think that anybody in the disability community would see it as offensive," says Babs Johnson of National ADAPT. "It would be looked upon as someone having a fit or seizure or something like that. Body movements that you're not able to control."


Tiger Woods used the word in a live TV interview. An article on Tuesday in online newspaper The Age tracked the reporting of Woods comments and found that spaz was edited out of subsequent news packages. They also say that an LA Times reporter got Tiger to re-word his sentence replacing spaz with wreck so he could report it with no problems.

1. Retard
2. Spastic
3. Window-licker
4. Mong
5. Special
6. Brave
7. Cripple
8. Psycho
9. Handicapped
10. Wheelchair-bound

In the UK, the words spaz and spastic seem to pack a bigger punch. I think we can firmly place the blame at the door of Blue Peter for this.

Never was its potency or currency so big as when the programme featured Joey Deacon in the early 1980s, believing the story of a 60-year-old man with cerebral palsy overcoming the odds would touch the hearts of under-12s.

Oh, how wrong. It unleashed a monster. Spaz, spastic, spacker, joey, spazmo - all became familiar phrases that year and were still being used years later by gurning children in the playground. Spaz became synonymous with useless incompetence - the type you see in disabled people portrayed badly on TV.

Joey even got a mention in a Human League song and on Minder. Not long after, The Spastics Society famously changed its name to Scope. They should have charged Blue Peter for the re-branding expenses.


Interestingly though, Scope were criticised by many younger disabled people last October after they came out against a new US brand of wheelchair, The Spazz, which started selling in Britain.

They said: "It may be a good chair but we can't accept the name. If it carries on, it won't be long before children are calling each other 'spazzo' in the playground again."

It was felt that Scope didn't appreciate the irony and humour, used empoweringly, by a company trying to associate something positive with a previously negative word.

Though this golfing incident has whipped up some interesting discussions around language, I'm convinced Tiger never meant to use the word offensively.

But has this whole debate just fanned the flames of those who rail against so-called political correctness or has it made people think about how they might subconsciously be putting disabled people down?

To hear some politically incorrect language used positively with razor sharp disability humour, the new podcast from Ouch featuring disabled comedians Mat Fraser and Liz Carr can be found on www.bbc.co.uk/ouch/podcast

The use of that word is completely unacceptable, whether it's intended to be 'ironic' or not. Nor is it, as the author contends, his word simply because he too has a disability. I'm sure Tiger Woods didn't think about its true meaning when he uttered it but if we allow its use without comment it will gain currency, as will the message that it's OK to make fun of people just because they're different. It's wrong, pure and simple.
Adam, UK

The word "spaz" was common currency in UK playgrounds by the early 1970s, long before any Blue Peter stories.
Simon Gray, London

I agree completely with Damon Rose that the way a word is used is the most important thing, although often who uses it has a big effect. I have an artificial leg and was nicknamed "Peg" at school. When my friends used it I didn't mind, but when other people used it to tease me I hated it. The word "cripple" is generally a lot worse, but I'll use it ironically at times to subvert people's meanings or draw attention to their subconscious attitude.
Bob, Southampton

Re-inforcing a negative stereotype is never acceptable even if the victim accepts the abusive comment. It is still abuse.
Lynda Lawrence, Surrey

Great article. The fact is there are times you can use a word and times you can't. I would probably be far more willing to ironically call a disabled friend a spaz than to use it anywhere else.
Paul Johnson, Horsham, UK

Why should Tiger Woods be made to apologise for something that had absolutely no negative intent? This is another shining example of political correctness gone too far. Surely the reactions of agencies such as ADAPT have only served to make a mountain of a molehill, while those with disabilities are saying to the tv screen "none taken"?
Mike, Pembrokeshire

If the use of the word "spaz" has caused offence, who has caused it the most - Tiger Woods who said it in the first place but reached a relatively small audience thanks to the US media, or the BBC who have blown the whole thing out of proportion and have made sure that everyone in the UK is now aware of it?
Colin Hunter, Bolton

'Idiot' was once a term for people with learning disabilities, now it has lost that meaning. I doubt 'spaz' will ever become a readily used term and will fade away. As will 'scope-head' which I believe is now a term of abuse in some playgrounds across the country. However, until then it's probably better to find a derogatory word about oneself that doesn't refer to derogatory stereotypes of others.
Neil, London

The use of the word john meaning toilet was an insult, should we stop using that? If i called my boss a spaz i would expect some reprisal, but if i called my best friend a spaz it wouldnt matter. Its all about context and good judgement. Tiger woods did not have good judgement, i dont think

What grated on me the most was what Dame Tanni Grey Thomson said yesterday on the matter. "You know he's not one of the rough football players who's gambling and getting drunk and being in clubs, you know he's quite a straight guy." I'm wheelchair bound; like gambling, drinking and going to clubs. I'm offended that she used the things i like to do in a dergotory way. Will she be made to apologise along with Tiger for the offence caused?
Robin Malinowski, Newcastle-upon-tyne

People should say what they want to say, offensive or not. Who's problem is the offence? I certainly have no guilt offending anyone, its my life and I will say what I want.
Mike Brown, Corby, Northants, England

Speaking as an American, I was shocked to read this article and find that Britons use "spaz" to refer to cerebral palsy. Over here, it's a very mild insult used generally to refer to someone who is uncoordinated or graceless. There's no implication of a physical handicap. What this article really demonstrates is that Europeans once again have failed to appreciate that Americans have their own culture.
Darrell, USA

Saying that people who aren't disabled can't be offended by such words is like David Brent in The Office claiming that white people can't be offended by racist jokes. Words carry a lot of meaning, historical baggage and emotional impact. Please use them with more respect.
Brian, Luxembourg

I take the point about minority groups reclaiming offensive words but Tiger is not, as far as I am aware, part of the group in society to whom the word "spastic" was once applied. To me thinking "spaz" feels wrong - let along saying it in public during an interview.
Lindsay , Stirling

My 11 year old son has Asperger's Syndrome and frequently finds it difficult to understand other people's actions and comments. For the past few weeks a small group of slightly older kids have been calling him a 'spaz' at every opportunity. While he may not fully understand what a 'spastic' is he does realise that the phrase is being used to hurt him and he is becoming very upset about it. I can understand you colleague becoming upset at you calling you friend a 'spaz'. I would too as I know the hurt it causes my son when it's used.
Jude, N. Ireland

I'm offended that you were offended that your non-disabled colleague was offended. A comment does not have to be applicable to you for you to find it offensive. I'd probably ask you not to use such terms in front of me in just the same way I'd ask you not to use racist or homophobic terms, even though I am white and straight.
Mike Burns, London

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