spastic, learning disability

Different pronunciations and new-to-you vocabulary can be charming. "I just love your accent!" people say, or "I love how the English/Americans say [insert word here--but not wanker, please]." Dialect wannabes pick up on these things and incorporate them into the linguistic identity that they try to project. But different meanings are another matter--they sneak up on you. Different meanings can get you into trouble.

Tiger Woods discovered this when he called himself a spaz on live UK radio/television after playing badly at the Masters last April. (See Language Log's discussion from back then.) To an American ear, that's a word for a (AmE) klutz. To a British ear, it's one of the most taboo insults, on a par with retard as one of the worst playground taunts. The difference is that BrE speakers see the connection between spaz and a specific disability, cerebral palsy. When I first moved here and donated to the charity SCOPE, its literature still said 'formerly the Spastic Society'. The name was changed in 1994, and you can read about it here. Until that point, I had never heard spastic as a synonym for 'having cerebral palsy' or 'person with cerebral palsy'--which is not to say that they were never used in the US in that way, but that it wasn't a use of the word that people of my generation were likely to come across. I had heard it as a description of some of the symptoms of CP (e.g. spastic muscles), so when I saw the title The Spastic Society, I could guess what the society was about. Still, it immediately struck me as a fairly crude and insensitive description of a disability, even though I still wasn't associating spaz with the disability. But like Tiger Woods, I heard horrified, sharp intakes of breath when I first unwittingly used it in the UK to describe my own behavio(u)r.

As Liz Ditz points out, learning disabled is another disability-related term that could cause transatlantic offen{c/s}e. It's a term that I used often as a (AmE) professor* at an American university, since it's the term that's used to collectively refer to things like dyslexia, dyspraxia, and attentional deficits. In other words, it's used for people with normal IQs who have specific problems with some aspect of learning. But in the UK, learning disability is equivalent to what is now in the US called developmental disability--and what has been called mental retardation (though this is found by many--especially in the UK--to be offensive now). Dyslexia and other normal-IQ conditions come under the umbrella of specific learning difficulty. The thing that keeps me confused about not calling dyslexia a learning disability is that it's covered by the UK Disability Discrimination Act. So, it's a disability that's not a disability. When trying to speak about such things at teaching-related meetings, I remember not to say learning disability, but can rarely remember difficulty, so I usually end up saying useless things like we need to keep in mind the students with learning....issues. (Doesn't every student have a learning issue?)

Another big term in British schooling is special educational needs, or SEN, which is the blanket term for any learning or behavio(u)ral problem that requires special consideration at school, and is used in contexts like SEN classrooms. One also hears/sees special needs education. I asked one of my bestest friends, the Ginger Nut about this. GN has been studying for a teaching certificate in the US while (working full-time and) raising a child who has an autistic spectrum disorder--so she's much more in touch with the terminology in American schools than I am. She confirms that SEN isn't the term of choice in AmE, but that "We might say, Special needs, and the official phrase that I think is comparable is Special education and related services - that's the phrasing in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)." Incidentally, I was recently told by a UK teacher that one has to avoid referring to anything as special in the classroom these days because of the association with learning/developmental disabilities. It may be the same in the US, where I first (about 12 years ago) heard the taunt You're so special, you should be in special education (or, the Special Olympics).

To see fuller lists of terminology (and perhaps do your own comparison), you can find a glossary of BrE terminology at the Department for Education and of AmE terminology at the UCLA/Wallis Foundation website. A term from the latter that GN had mentioned was emotional disturbance (ED), whereas the BrE equivalent seems to be EBD: emotional and behavioural difficulties. We tend not to get these terms at the university level, and instead talk about such problems (including depression and schizophrenia) as mental health problems or mental illness.

*Yes, there are professors at BrE institutions too, but most British universities the term only applies to the equivalent of AmE full professor, and I wasn't one of those. Hence, the '(AmE)' marking. Someday I'll do an entry on that(And I now have.)


  1. Worry not.

    In time, all these terms will go through a natural euphemism-taboo cycle of lexical change. Special will pertain only to the implied meaning behind special needs while learning difficulty will be used to patronise the unintelligentsia.

    One the other side of the equation, words like retard, spastic and (for the British) spaz will lose all connection to their pathological basis and will be used only as very mild insults, much like idiot, which, if the cline continues, may just evolve into a proper name by then.

  2. I think you'll find that 'special needs' has become 'additional requirements', just as 'student' has become 'learner'. Sheesh. Someone save us from inoffensive rhetoric.

    Jangari, why you bring US politics (idiot, unintelligentsia) into this is a bit of a mystery. But I can see why it might be a subconscious response to the topic.

  3. "Spaz" was a term we used liberally when I was in my teenaged years in the Midwest in the 60's. It really wasn't even an insult at all...just a term used as an alternative to "klutz", as you wrote in your piece. I don't think I have used "spaz" for years now, but I will be especially cautious about doing so here in the UK.


  4. I've encountered the use of "special" as an insult - but in my experience you have to say it in a certain way for it to be taken as an insult or friendly jab. It's hard to describe online.

    I do recall, when I was in high school, learning a variation on the "Toys R Us" jingle in which one sang "I don't wanna grow up, I'm a special ed kid. My mommy dropped me on my head and look what it did..."

  5. Another example would be 'Paki' for Pakistani. In the UK it is a racist term for South Asians, whether or not they're from Pakistan. It's considered very offensive indeed.

    In the US and Canada, it is a simple abbreviation of the word 'Pakistani', with no negative connotations. I remember the palpable embarrassment of a BBC news presenter when a Canadian UN official he was interviewing repeatedly used the term 'Paki' while talking about the Pakistani UN peacekeepers in Somalia in the early/mid 1990s.

    1. I'm in my 60s and have lived in Canada most of my life and the short form for someone from Pakistan was always regarded as an ethnic slur. Sure, people might have used it but they did so knowing that it was a slur. I remember it being used in a skipping rhyme in the 1960s and our teacher making us change it to "Patty".

  6. Re students becoming learners: I was only the other day involved in a conversation about how students seem to have become customers round here. Ugh.

  7. In my part of Canada, Paki certainly is a racist term for a person from South Asia and is not considered acceptable by most people.

    Special is often used as an insult, but you have to say it in a sneering, condescending tone. There's also "short-bus special," which comes from the way that disabled children are often bussed to school separately on a smaller bus.

    On an interesting note, educational funding in my area groups all students with distinctive educational needs together, specifically those with disabilities and those students in the gifted and talented programs. So a special needs student, according to the government categories, may be the next Einstein.

  8. "Mental defective" was used when I was young. At University, a chump would be dismissed as a "spastic hoof". In Edinburgh 30 years ago, a "Paki" was a corner shop.

  9. Jangari, why you bring US politics (idiot, unintelligentsia) into this is a bit of a mystery.

    If you associate these words with American politics, then, that's very interesting in itself. I meant them as nothing more than a general observation. Having said that, the sentence with 'unintelligentsia', I agree, could have been better worded altogether. There certainly isn't anything parochial in it.

  10. In NZ, we had the 'Crippled Children's Society', but it soon became very unPC to call someone 'crippled'. Hence we now have CCS - which most people know stands for... the Crippled Children's Society. Why not go for a new name altogether??

    One thing I came across whilst living in Australia, and visiting the UK, was 'fitting'. I found it shocking, much like you discovered in the UK when you used 'spaz'. In NZ one would talk about someone 'having a seizure', and I've not heard anyone use 'having a fit' in conjunction with epilepsy for quite some years. We do, however, still talk aobut someone having a fit about something, when meaning they are very angry. ("My mother had a fit at me last night for getting in half an hour late!")

    Spastic down here had the same cerebal palsy connotations, and is most certainly a bad thing to say as it is in the UK.

  11. Part of the reason that mental handicap (as it used to be known) is now called learning disability, is to stop it being confused with mental illness. I believe this move was led by Mencap.

  12. In fairness, Spastic was never a dreadful taboo except in certain trendy or "politically correct" circles. People here in England still call others a spaz or a Joey if they fumble something or trip over, and in the majority of cases, with no ill feeling to those with cerebral palsy.

    And SCOPE wasn't formerly known as "The Spastic Society" (which suggests 'Stastic' as an adjective), but The Spastics' Society (with Spastics as a noun).

  13. A recent Scott Adams newsletter (he is the writer of the Dilbert cartoons), in the section recording overheard idiotic remarks , refers to a mother haranguing a school football (NFL) coach who had placed her son in the special team - she reckoned he deserved to be on the "normal" team .

  14. I agree with bstirling. In my part of the US, 'Paki' would be considered very offensive.

    Also, it may be worth noting that 'spaz' can also be used as a verb. In the phrase 'spaz out' it means to get very angry or upset. "My mom spazzed out when she found I got a C on the exam."

  15. I had never heard of ED until just now. The current term used in educational circles in the States is EBD, which stands for Emotional and Behavior Disorders.

  16. Where I'm from, "nigger" is just a word used to describe black people, but apparently it's offensive in some places.

    What's funny here is that the USA loves insisting that the rest of the world conform to their views and stop using words that they don't like, but when a word they want to use, such as "spaz", is offensive elsewhere, they think it's completely alright for them to keep using it.

  17. Hey, Anonymous, I'm really interested to hear where you're from.

    I haven't seen anything here that says that Americans want people to conform to their views. I certainly haven't written any such thing. I've seen something that says that a word that isn't considered to refer to a specific disability in country X does refer to that disability in country Y (in what is now considered a negative way--but, at least in the long form, was not always so). And so,
    (a) country X people who don't think that word is offensive should be aware of that offense so that they can adjust their language usage if they feel it's necessary in the context they're in, and
    (b) people from country Y might want to know that people from country X are not operating with the same experience of the language that they are, and that this may make them seem like they're insenstive, when really they're just speaking a different dialect.

  18. One place where today's offensive terms are inoffensive is the past.

    At there end of the sixties I was living in Bradford (or, for a time, in nearby Leeds) teaching English to immigrant children.

    I should explain that this part of Yorkshire in the North of England was a particular magnet for immigrants from West Pakistan and East Pakistan (before there was a Bangla Desh). Nowadays, Bradford is just one of many cities with a substantial and visible immigrant minority. In those days it was considered exceptional.

    Because of the children i knew, I personally thought in terms of West Pakistani, East Pakistani, Indian etc. But the Bradfordians around me would conflate all South Asians as Pakis. Yes, some were hostile, but very many were not. For many (I would say most) people it was a convenient adjective for paki shops, paki cafes, paki butchers etc. Then I spent a year aways from Bradford and several more years away from Britain. At some time I became aware of the term paki bashing (racially motivated attacks on South Asians) but I just wasn't around to observe that paki had become a hate term used exclusively (or nearly so) by racists.

    No doubt there were South Asians who already objected to the term in the sixties, but I never met them. For most of the British population the word was either unknown or neutral.

    Believe it or not, the same can be said for the N-word. In sound recordings of spontaneous speech in the past, I heard (or read a transcript of) African Americans in the South using n*gger to mean 'Black like me'. Yes of course the word was used a term of hatred or despite by those who hated or despised Black people. But unprejudiced Whites used the word too — until persuaded to use another word.

    But which word? Coloured was favoured, then dropped in favour of Negro, which in turn was rejected in favour of Afro American. Then Black, which had once been thought offensive, was rehabilitated, before African American became the most politically acceptable. (There was once an occasion when American journalists agonised on how to describe some Black British relatives of some massacre victims. Smee seriously considered describing them as British African Americans.)

    Even the word Race was briefly considered the most acceptable term. The fashion didn't last — except that record companies described their catalogues produced for the African American market as Race records.

    Throughout all this linguistic change some African Americans in the rural South continued to use the word n*gger to mean 'Black like me'. I know that, because some of them were blues singers who made records. Not that it was always acceptable to Blacks who were removed from them in time or place or social class. Big Bill Broonzy told a story (just possibly true) of the singer form Mississippi Tommy McClennan causing a riot in a Chicago tavern when he insisted on singing his hit song Bottle Up And Go with his original lyrics:

    N*gger and the White man playing seven-up
    N*gger win the money but he's scared to pick it up
    He got the bottle up and go

    Back down South, it wasn't a white racist who coined the rhyming critique of the sharecropping system

    An ought's an ought
    A figure's a figure
    Everything for the White man
    Nothing for the N*gger

    [ASIDE an ought is to a nought as an orange is to a norange]

  19. Yes, it would be totally unacceptable for speakers to time-travel here from the past and use words like Paki and N*gger the way they used them back then. But what about time-travel in the opposite direction?

    • Why do people feel free to condemn Mark Twain for using the n-word without a scintilla of hatred in Huckleberry Finn?

    • Much as I love the comedienne Shappi Khorsandi (British of Iranian origin), I can't share her disquiet at this fierce satire of racism. click ere. For Shappi, the horror of the n-word is so strong as to dilute, almost negate the force of the satire.

    Another example of reverse time-travel; The George Mitchell (originally Black and White Mistrels) performing behind Millicent Martin were obviously a throwback to the nigger minstrel tradition but then more often criticised form being old-fashioned than for being racist. Yes, we now know that Black people did object, but it was only many years later that mainstream opinion joined them. But to hear people speak nowadays, you'd think everybody always saw the race-hatred implications. The Minstrels themselves can't have been racists, or they would't have agreed to perform the anti-racist song.

  20. As well as geographical travel and time travel, there's class-travel. It's perfectly acceptable for young Black men (I don't know about women) of a certain narrowly defined social sub-group to address each ofter as 'n*gger''. But there's absolutely no way any of the rest of us can cross that boundary. If we use the word — however well-meaningland empathetic we think we are — it becomes an insult.

    At least, that's true in the time and place where I live. Anonymous apparently lives somewhere (or somewhen) else.

    By the same token, I don't think critics of whatever colour are entitled to perform reverse class-travel and tell that in-group that they are insulting one-another.

  21. The problem with word usage is that it changes with the perception of the person using it and the person hearing it. One can mean something completely inoffensive, but the other person can precive it as offensive. Growing up I heard the phrase,"It's not how you say it, but the way they take it, but I also feel that it the opposite way as well. Both people in a conversation have a responsibility to make sure that they are both understood and make sure that they are understanding the other person correctly. Personally, I believe that, with a few well placed questions, a lot of miscommunications can be cleared up. Unfortunately, we as human beings tend to make a lot of assumptions when we lack facts.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)