In the first two instalments of our look at the English language’s permanent residents of the naughty step, we examined two of the most unspeakable words linked to sex and race respectively. Now we turn our attention to disability, and the one word associated with the disabled that the utterance of which will generally be followed by the proverbial pin dropping.
Anyone of the generation exposed to the severely disabled Joey Deacon on ‘Blue Peter’ and whose awareness of his remarkable achievement in writing his autobiography is sadly overridden by the memory of the toe-curlingly awkward live interview with him conducted by Simon Groom, Christopher Wenner and Tina Heath will instantly recognise this word, which remains a medical term applied to specific conditions in anyone afflicted with cerebral palsy. However, it wasn’t long before Joey quickly became a lazy playground insult, along with spastic itself and the abbreviated ‘spaz’. How we, the able-bodied children of Britain, chortled at the charity shop bearing the name ‘The Spastics Society’, ignorant of the organisation behind it and oblivious to the sterling work done on its behalf. Children are a careless breed indeed.
Ian Dury, a man whose own childhood was blighted by the late 40s polio outbreak, laudably attempted to liberate the word from both the medical profession and the infantile snigger with his incendiary single attacking the 1981 International Year of Disabled Persons as patronising, ‘Spasticus Autisticus’. The song elevated the disabled to the heroic status of Spartacus, yet fell foul of the radio censor for fear of causing offence, regardless of the disabled Dury’s perfect right to use it in any way he saw fit. Being the brilliantly witty wordsmith he was, it came as no surprise that he should opt to reclaim spastic with such mischievous abrasiveness.
There are various words it’s no longer feasible to use as descriptive terms for the physically or mentally disabled that were once commonplace – cripple, handicapped, backward, slow, simple, Mongoloid, retarded, retard – but spastic is today the greatest verbal no-go. A reminder of how strange it now seems when the word is used in its proper place can come when viewing archive appeals for charities. One from the late 50s/early 60s features the northern comic actor Wilfred Pickles who is pictured at a school for the disabled before turning to the camera and pleading with the viewer to ‘send some money to help spastics’. I defy anyone of a certain age to watch it and hear Pickles’ broad Yorkshire accent pronouncing the word and not burst out laughing.
That’s the problem with spastic, and why I think the word has been forcibly removed from the common vocabulary. The condition itself is, of course, terrible and not remotely amusing, but the word is undoubtedly funny. There’s no getting round it. It’s just one of those words like ‘poo’ that provokes a smirk, whatever one’s age. I should imagine it’s why the Spastics Society became Scope in 1994. However, this only seems to be the case in Britain. Across the pond, spaz is sometimes spelt spazz and is generally regarded as inoffensive as (and often interchangeable with) words such as nerd or geek. It even surfaces in several American products, including a lip-balm named ‘SpazzStick’ and a soft drink called Spaz Juice. There are numerous notorious differences between certain British and American meanings of slang words – ‘fag’ being one, ‘fanny’ being another; but the casual employment of spastic or spaz appears especially startling from a British perspective.
Perhaps it’s a measure of how far we’ve come in recognising spastic as a word to avoid that we find its use in America so oddly uncomfortable. That said, I’m afraid the word and its abbreviations sometimes slip out when describing my own ineptitude at any task I fail at; blame it on my age. And Simon Groom, the spaz.