Many Japanese think English is taxing enough already without native English-speakers arguing among themselves over the correctness or propriety of this or that word. It happened again after the latest U.S. Masters golf championship in Augusta, Ga., when it seemed more media ink was spilled over Tiger Woods’ casual use of the word “spaz” than over Phil Mickelson’s smooth run to a second green jacket. Mystified language students shouldn’t worry. This was a cultural controversy rather than a linguistic one. It was also a controversy without substance.
If you weren’t absolutely glued to the television during the interview with Mr. Woods after he finished the tournament tied for third, you would have missed the millisecond that caused all the fuss. It came and went that quickly. Asked about his play, which had been strong down the fairways and weak on the greens, Mr. Woods replied with his usual candor: “I putted atrociously today. Once I got on the greens I was a spaz.” As a commentary on his Web site explains, “Woods was poking fun at himself after three-putting three times and using 33 putts, and meant no disrespect.”
Why was this disclaimer necessary? Anyone who knows golf, and Mr. Woods’ game in particular, understood what he had meant: His poor putting cost him the championship, plain and simple. To describe his own slip-ups, he used a slang word — derived from the word spastic, meaning “of or characterized by spasms” — that the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines without qualification as “one who is inept.” The American Heritage Dictionary, more guardedly, adds a warning tag to its definition of spaz, calling it offensive slang. It also appends that tag to its definition of the root word spastic, at least when it is used in a non-clinical way to mean clumsy and inept.
It turns out the Heritage Dictionary was smart, if weak-kneed, because certain people did indeed take offense at Mr. Woods’ patently inoffensive bit of hyperbole. Disability groups, led by the British charity Scope, which represents people with cerebral palsy, demanded an apology. Mr. Woods’ use of “spaz,” they said, “attributed symptoms of spastic cerebral palsy to non-disabled people.” Last week, Mr. Woods did apologize, even though, as he said, he had meant no disrespect — not even the shocked folks at Scope went so far as to suggest that he had. But he is an honorable human being, as his numerous philanthropic activities off the golf course testify, and his gesture came as no surprise.
An apology should never have been asked for, however — and not because Mr. Woods is a good guy who should have been cut some slack, which was the defense several commentators offered on his behalf. It shouldn’t have been asked for because Mr. Woods said nothing wrong. He used a word that “attributed symptoms of spastic cerebral palsy to non-disabled people.” Well, why not? You can attribute symptoms of blindness to a referee. You can attribute symptoms of stupidity to a politician. You can attribute symptoms of deafness to a spouse. Surely an athlete off his game can attribute stiff, jerky movements and lack of coordination to himself without offending every cerebral palsy sufferer in the land.
The incident highlighted what can only be described as an accelerating movement to hijack the English language in the name of some Platonic ideal of sensitivity. The effect has been to virtually criminalize many words simply because they have been used by ignorant people to disparage or belittle. But this is a game that can’t be won. Substitute a euphemism for an old word that has been deemed “negative,” and before you know it, the new word is a term of abuse.
A case in point: Scope, the British charity that lambasted Mr. Woods for saying “spaz,” was itself originally called the Spastics Society. It changed its name after spastic and spaz became popular slurs on British playgrounds. So what do British kids call each other now? Scope-heads, of course. And in a BBC survey this month, “special” and “brave” scored right up there with “retard” and “cripple” on a list of words that disabled people deemed most offensive. Should they be outlawed, too?
Sensitivity is important, but not at the expense of common sense. Words are not intrinsically bad: Context and intent determine that. Ignoring those things, as happened in this case, just brings us another step closer to the day when language everywhere will be as gray and bland as a politician’s pre-vetted campaign speech. Foreign language students naturally may prefer to watch what they say, but they should take those dictionary warning tags with a grain of salt. No matter how many words the language police outlaw, people will never stop calling each other names.
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