20 responses to “Ableist Word Profile: Spaz/Spak”

  1. Kaitlyn

    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. almandite


    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. Kaz

    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. Kowalski

    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!? =-.

  5. Kali

    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.


  6. Dorian

    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.

  7. Travis

    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.

  8. Diana

    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.

  9. K

    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.

  10. calixti

    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* =-.

  11. Norah

    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 :).

  12. Amanda

    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.

  13. Dar

    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.

  14. Kaitlyn

    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.

  15. Tera

    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).

  16. Rosemary

    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.

  17. Suzi

    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.

  18. Adair

    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.

  19. hexalm

    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.