Ableist Word Profile: Spaz/Spak

  • Ableist Word Profile is an ongoing FWD/Forward series in which we explore ableism and the way it manifests in language usage.
  • Here’s what this series is about: Examining word origins, the way in which ableism is unconsciously reinforced, the power that language has.
  • Here’s what this series is not about: Telling people which words they can use to define their own experiences, rejecting reclamatory word usage, telling people which words they can and cannot use.
  • You don’t necessarily have to agree that a particular profiled word or phrase is ableist; we ask you to think about the way in which the language that we use is influenced, both historically and currently, by ableist thought.
  • Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post

Spaz/spak, both derived from “spastic,” come with a lot of variations. Someone may be said to be a “spaz” or a “spak,” for example. Someone who is behaving erratically is spazzing or spakking out. “Don’t spazz out,” people say dismissively when someone is reacting to a situation in a way which they think is extreme. There have also been proposals to use “spakking up” or “spakface” to describe what we and many others have been referring to as “crip drag,” in which actors without disabilities portray people with disabilities on stage and screen.

These words pop up in some surprising places; doing some research for this AWP, I even found a model of wheelchair called a “Spazz.”

So, what gives? “Spastic” is a word from the Greek, derived from a root which means “drawing or pulling up,” used to describe people who experience muscle spasms. The word dates from the late 1700s, and began to be used in the 1800s to describe people with spasticity. Spasticity can be associated with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, and a number of other conditions. “Spaz” as a slang term popped up in the 1960s.

To the layperson, someone with spasticity might appear clumsy or inept, because of the muscle jerks and clenches which characterize spasticity; folks with spasticity can have difficulty walking, talking, and so forth because their muscles are not entirely under their control. Thus, it’s not too surprising that people started using “spaz” to refer to people who appeared clumsy, because, you know, why just call someone “clumsy1” when you can use an ableist slur instead?

The word is also used to describe erratic or “crazy” behavior, such as “flipping out,” along with some characteristics of neuroatypicality such as awkwardness in social situations, saying things which appear random, not following a conversation, or simply being “geeky” or “dorky” in the eye of the observer. I’ve also heard the word used in reference to epilepsy, most recently on everyone’s favourite television series, Glee.

Both “spaz” and “spak” have clear ableist roots because they’re shortened versions of an actual diagnostic term. They shouldn’t be used to refer to “spasticity” at all (unless, of course, as self identification by someone with spasticity) and they’re definitely not appropriate as slang terms to refer to people without spasticity. The implication here is that spasticity makes someone worthless, inept, awkward, laughable, useless, etc., and “spaz/spak” have become umbrella terms to refer to a wide range of human behaviour.

Because these words are used in so many different ways, it’s hard to come up with a list of recommended alternate uses. I suppose I could try, but I’d go on for hundreds of words. This is another one of those cases in which it’s worth examining what, precisely, is meant by referring to someone as a “spaz” or “spak” or what one is trying to convey when someone is said to be “spakking out” or “spazzing out.”

One of the most interesting objections to this series, for me, has been the idea that it is “taking words away,” paired with a great deal of resentment about being asked to consider language usage. On the contrast, I think that the series adds words to the vocabularies of readers, because it forces people to articulate and clarify what they actually mean. Instead of leaping to a handy ableist slang term for something, people actually need to think about what they want to communicate, and find a word for it. Maybe I’m just a word geek, but I think that’s really fun, personally, exploring new words to use.

Perhaps readers can come up with some suggestions or examples of replacements to “spaz” and “spak” they’ve started using or encouraging others to use below.

  1. Fun unrelated etymology fact: Clumsy is derived from a Middle English word which refers to being numb with cold.

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

20 thoughts on “Ableist Word Profile: Spaz/Spak

  1. I think it’s fun as well – well not, fun fun, but fun when writing. What can I use instead? Also word geek.

    I’m afraid to google for fear of running into ableist garbage, but where does “spak” come from? Where is it used? I understand “spaz” – just shortening the word itself.

    I don’t think I’ve used “spaz,” but if I was, instead of saying “stop spazzing out” to someone who does not have spasticity, I’d say “Get a hold of yourself.” When I think of using “spaz” against someone, I’m thinking of somebody overwhelmed by a situation who starts acting out, or “weird.”

    Using it when someone is clumsy – “God you’re such a spaz!” – there should not be a replacement. I am clumsy (when did we get a wall here?) and it’s cruel to make fun of it with or without ableist language. You can laugh about it when I start laughing as well. Or if you must, do it away from me. Like, I stumble and say something like “oh, there’s a curb there. that’s new” go ahead and laugh. But don’t just laugh and point because I tripped. Ha, I could have broken a bone, you’re right, random onlooker, it’s so funny!

    Of course it’s also used in anger – carrying something and stumbling and ruining/dropping the expensive, fragile something or just being slow because you’ve decided to have a face-to-face with the sidewalk. Just take a deep breath, don’t chew me out – I didn’t do it on purpose, you know.

  2. *applause*

    I was originally told that spazzing referred to epilepsy, and I think that’s a connection that’s pretty strong in a lot of people’s minds (witness the week before’s episode of Glee!) But this (yours) is the explanation I believe to be correct. It’s the equivalent of the “r” word, in a way.

    What do you think about the phrase “fit”? Not in the sense of athleticism, but in the sense of “the two-year-old pitched a fit when denied a candybar” or “in a fit of inspiration, I developed a zebra-antelope hybrid”? I’m not sure of the facts with this one.

  3. I recently discovered that I’d used “spaz” in the summary of something I wrote about a year back – oops! I wound up replacing it with “flail”, as that has some of the same connotations of panicked uncoordinated ineffective amusing to watch attempts to do something that the ableist version of “spaz” did in that context. “Flail” or variations (“flail about”) is my #1 replacement term in most situations.

    As an interesting aside, there’s an almost exact equivalent to “spaz” as a noun in German – “Spasti”, derived from “Spastiker”. I think it’s more of an insult than the English, but the meaning is very similar. I find parallel development like that very telling.

  4. Kaitlin, “spak” is just another shortening of “spastic,” which just drops the middle of the word and replaces the “c” with a “k.” And I should note that I see both words used in reference to epilepsy pretty commonly, even when they are actually related to spasticity. Which sort of adds to the ableism bonbon, having people use a pejorative shortening of one thing to refer to another thing.

    almandite, I have a big problem with “fit” and it’s probably something we will cover here at some point. “Don’t have a fit,” “pitched a fit,” etc. sounds pretty clearly like a reference to epilepsy, to me. I’d be curious to hear from readers with epilepsy who may have a different take (or expanded thoughts) on the subject. Needless to say, I am also not a big fan of “don’t have a seizure,” “she practically had a seizure when she saw the bill,” and so on.

  5. Hmmm… I always thought “throwing a fit” is the equivalent of throwing a tantrum.

    On another note, Kaz’s comments on this series remind me of how deeply disablist the everyday German language is.
    I can’t even tell people that I’m autistic or disabled without some douchebag saying something like “Don’t be so hard on yourself!” because both words are such common insults.
    I think it’s because in our culture conformity is valued above all, even if no one would admit that.
    .-= Kowalski´s last blog ..WTF? Kowalski!? =-.

  6. This is *wince* I’ll admit a word that I’ve had trouble trying to remove from my lexicon.

    I think mostly because it got ingrained from childhood. Not that those roots make it any better. I’ve always been a bit clumsy, which we now know is probably related to my disability. I can’t tell you the number of times I was jokingly told that I was such a spaz – either from doing something physically goofy like dancing around the kitchen and having a collision with the table or from verbally tripping over my tongue. It was also used in our household for doing something kind of erratic – describing my sister as such a spaz because of the way she reacts to situations, for example.

    It’s one of those things that didn’t hurt at the time, but does now. ‘Lame’ bothered me a lot more, I think because I understood the source of the word better than I did with ‘spaz’. Especially as I went into my teens and started getting injured more and more, I heard those words more frequently and was more hurt by them. As it happens, those increasing injuries actually have nothing to do with my clutziness, and everything to do with my disability. Looking back, it makes all the times I was teased about it – with or without the words lame and spaz – much more painful.

    I still slip occasionally and say one of those words, but at least I am aware now of their meaning and realize I’ve done it! I think I’m getting better about it, but I do slip. It’s frustrating. I know better. I guess all I can do is try.


  7. I’m pretty sure I’m guilty of having used “spaz” or “spastic” in the past, but I’ve made a conscious effort to stop doing that.

    Re: ‘fit’ as in ‘tantrum’, my favourite replacement word is “snit”, as in “Oh, don’t mind him…he’s in a bit of a snit”. (Though I’m not sure where it came from; if it is also problematic, I should probably stop…)

    A cursory google reveals nothing problematic, though also makes me think I should use “tizzy” instead, as it’s an awesome word.

  8. I only learned about this one a few years ago. When I was growing up, I always heard it used in ways that gave it more of an “airhead” meaning, not anything physical, so I was really surprised to hear where the word came from.

  9. Thanks for this post. My mother, who has spasticity, called my sister and I out on using “spaz” a few months ago, and I was taken aback, because I try to be mindful of the connotations of the language I use, and I’d never made the connection between “spaz” and “spastic” before. (I had a similar shameful moment when I realized that “gyp” was not spelled “jip” and is a racial slur.)
    I am most definitely a word nerd, so this kind of language parsing appeals to me as well as a way to expand vocabulary. The difficulty with “spaz,” however, is that I seem to use it primarily in a derogatory way, and most of the words I’ve come up with to replace my usage are similarly derogatory (“clumsy,” “neurotic,” “weird”). So for me it’s become about reframing what I’m trying to express (usually “CALM DOWN”) or saying nothing at all.

  10. My sister used to call me a spaz.

    I didn’t have any known muscle control issues, I was just an overactive kid (in hindsight I probably would have benefitted from some kind of intervention for hyperactivity, whether that intervention was medical or therapy.) But my sister always meant it as an insult. Se never joked aroud about that.

  11. Thanks for this one. I’m incredibly clumsy, due to a combination of poor depth perception, lack of spatial awareness, and poor balance, all of which may or may not be related to my LD, and often get called a “spaz.” I may just link people here to explain exactly why that’s inappropriate now.

    Also, what Kaitlyn said. My clumsiness isn’t funny. Or “cute.” It’s often dangerous and always annoying, actually.
    .-= calixti´s last blog ..*sigh* =-.

  12. This is one I’ve often been called, or the Duch version of it really (spast). It was always referring to the way I move and hold my body, especially my hands and arms, maybe in combination with very bad motor skills, balance, coordination, clumsiness, whatever (the whole lot).
    I expect most of the other Dutch terms that I’ve been called with any regularity won’t show up here :).

  13. I’ve been called a spaz my whole life to the point where I can’t even isolate what about me caused that response. And now I am actually being found to have spasticity in a number of muscles, but since most of them are internal, nobody would even think to say that.

  14. Technically, since we’re delving into language, “spasticity” or “spastic” is not a diagnosis of a medical condition but a symptom of any number of conditions.

    However, using any symptom as a correlative of negative characteristics is always offensive. Much in the same way someone calling a joke “lame” implies that someone who with a limp is not funny (I protest – I’m a barrel of laughs!) or calling an attempt “lame” is offensive in that it equates an awkward gait with ineffectiveness etc etc.

    So yeah, “spaz” and all its derivatives as an insult is a big insult to anyone who has symptoms of spasticity – and that includes people with a whole whackload of disabilities and conditions.

    I have a friend who uses this term very freely as a perjorative – and is a mental health professional! I was shocked. That may be indicative of the respect mental health professionals hold for people with disabilities. I would hate to generalize. But it’s worth a thought…

    When I was younger, ‘spaz’ was quite a common insult word. I got it a lot when I was clumsy on my crutches or when I bashed my leg brace against something. (Back then the hinges were quite wide, and I never quite got the knack of estimating the width of it when walking in crowded environments – I dragged a chair across the cafeteria one time in high school. Oh, how I envy people their spiffy new carbon fiber braces.)

    I found it terribly confusing, because I didn’t understand why something that some (by definition) has no control over should be used as an insult, and also since what was going on with me had nothing to do with spasticity. I could not understand how poor spacial estimation was related to muscle jerking. I just assumed anyone who used it as an insult was ignorant of the word’s actual meaning, and I was too shy at that time to point out such an obvious error. (I was a naive youngster.)

    Things seemed to look up for a while – “spaz” almsot disappeared from the language for a little bit. It even seemed to be frowned upon for a while, which was a relief. But then it returned. I don’t think this show Glee is helping much, either. I refuse to watch it, and it appears that’s a good choice.

  15. Dar – “I found it terribly confusing, because I didn’t understand why something that some (by definition) has no control over should be used as an insult”

    So do I. (I also find compliments for the same thing weird. “Yeah, I ordered my eye color from the catalog while in utero.” Also – compliments for my dog are weird.)

    But people insult other people for things they have no control over all the time – their names. Their families. Their gender. Their race. Their health… and on and on.

  16. Thank you for this. When golfer Tiger Woods referred to himself as a “spaz” at the US Masters, a spokesman for Scope (formerly the Spastic Society) said:

    “Although in the US the term ‘spaz’ may not be as offensive as it is in the UK, many disabled people here will have taken exception to likening his poor golf stroke to that of ‘a spaz’.”

    That statement annoyed me, because it makes it sound like the usage of “spaz” in the US doesn’t mean the same thing or come from the same ableist place as its usage in the UK. If it’s “more offensive” in the UK, that’s only because more people are tuned in to its offensiveness…whether because the term “spastic” had featured so prominently in a disability charity or for other reasons.

    Regarding “clumsy”–dyspraxia (a condition/series of conditions that affect motor skill development) is sometimes called “clumsy child syndrome.” (See this title of a medical text, for instance).

  17. This is one I thoughtlessly and often callously used a kid/teen and it makes me so angry with myself to look back now and realize how many people I may have hurt every time I used it. Often accompanied with a horrible hand movement and guttural noise for effect. I want to go back and spank myself!! Good profile.

  18. Thank you for posting this. Here in Ireland, just as in the UK, “spaz” and its derivatives are recognised as unPC words. They’re still used, unfortunately (although I generally call out my students when they use ablist and homophobic language to vent their frustration. Seriously, how can an equation be gay?) but the argument isn’t about what it means, but whether it’s ok to say it or not.
    I’ve been involved in discussions about this particular one online, and been told that in the US it doesn’t have the same ablist roots. I always wanted to call shenanigans on that, but I know that there is a huge difference between UK/Hiberno English and US English, so I wasn’t sure. This post has definitely cleared that up.

  19. I’d say that growing up, my peer group most often used in it a way that crossed back and forth between denoting eccentric charm and rejecting someone else’s behavior as annoying and incomprehensible to the speaker.

    Absolutely no images of a disabled person spring to mind when I hear the word “spastic”. I’ve never been exposed to that usage, so it’s much harder to imagine an abbreviated version being an offensive slur. Why would I call someone with cerebral palsy “spastic” when I could just say they had cerebral palsy?

    Yes, I know what I’m doing here–stubbornly defending ableism out of the instinct to preserve my invisible (to me) privilege. But also I’m saying, “I had no idea it could be so offensive, and I still don’t understand on an emotional level.” So in a way I’m asking for forgiveness if I use that word in the future, although I don’t think it’s part of my regular lexicon.

    I think, as other commenters have discussed, all aside from the history of the word, “spaz” should be avoided simply because its uses are all about not having empathy for someone else. Either it’s cute that you hurt yourself or act eccentrically, so I don’t have to try to think where you’re coming from or whether it might be a real problem for you, or you deserve scorn for your behavior, voluntary or involuntary.

  20. I found it easy to connect “spaz” to ablism, once I saw saw there was a DWP on it, but I do have a knack for that kind of thing.

    In the US, it is just as bad a word, if you ask me, probably just not as recognized. I think in many cases, people fail to distinguish between different degrees of ablism, but it’s also often a good idea to add a regional disclaimer when you’re critical of language, if disappointing when it’s not necessary.

    Remember, English spoken in any region is still English. Unless a word came from a completely different source with a completely different meaning, it’s still going to be just as ablist, at least in origin if not in the recognized offense caused by its use.

    @Adair: Hopefully once this processes, you will grasp it on a deeper level and feel motivated to do something about it. It sounds like ‘not getting it’ could be as much about usage as it is about privilege, for you. For example, despite being lame myself, when I started reading about ablist language, it took awhile for the problems with the word ‘lame’ to become visible to me.

    I think I just felt like It wasn’t Being Used Like That Anymore(TM) and didn’t apply to me–but of course, the problems with ablist language go much deeper than we’re generally aware.

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