Twice in the past couple of months, a musical superstar changed the lyrics to a new song to avoid a problematic slang term: spaz. First came Lizzo, whose song “Grrrls,” released as a single in June, originally included the lyric “I’ma spaz.” After online outrage over the word being an ableist slur, Lizzo changed the line to “Hold me back.” And this week, Beyoncé announced she would update the song “Heated” off Renaissance, her first solo album in six years, after receiving similar criticism. The line “spazzin’ on that ass, spaz on that ass” will be replaced by “blastin’ on that ass, blast on that ass.”
In both cases, disability advocates critiqued the use of the word spaz as derogatory against those with spastic diplegia, a common form of cerebral palsy. Hannah Diviney, a writer from Sydney, Australia who has cerebral palsy, went viral in June with a tweet admonishing Lizzo to “do better,” and when Renaissance was released and the “Heated” lyric was brought to her attention, she wrote in the Guardian that her “heart sank.”
One thing that these lyrical controversies have revealed is that spaz, as a noun or a verb, can be received very differently by different communities of English speakers. In Great Britain and Australia, spaz is evidently seen as more derogatory than it is by many Americans. The same is true of the related term spastic: In 2003, a BBC poll found that spastic was the second-most offensive term for disabled people, after only retard.
It’s not the first time that this dialectal divide has made the news. Back in 2006, Tiger Woods was interviewed by CBS after a disappointing round at the Masters Tournament, and he said, “I was so in control from tee to green, the best I’ve played for years … But as soon as I got on the green, I was a spaz.” British newspapers lambasted Woods’ remark as “extraordinarily insensitive” (the Telegraph) and “a grievous insult to handicapped people all over the world” (the Independent). Perplexed by the response, Woods said through a spokesman that he “meant nothing derogatory to any person or persons and apologizes for any offense caused.” Lizzo and Beyoncé have issued similar statements.
To understand how this word can have such divergent connotations, it helps to plumb its complicated history. Spaz emerged in American slang in the 1950s, a clipping of spastic, with its pronunciation influenced by the related words spasm and spasmodic. Spastic had been used in medical circles since the 18th century, first as a word to describe a muscular spasm and then in the name of conditions marked by involuntary spasms, as in spastic paralysis or spastic diplegia. By the early 20th century, spastic could be used in medical literature as an adjective meaning “affected with spastic paralysis,” as in “spastic children,” or as a noun for a person with that type of paralysis.
Spastic itself underwent what linguists call “pejoration” as it became a playground taunt, often to ridicule someone’s uncoordinated behavior. As with spaz, the connotations of spastic have been more negative in British English than across the Atlantic. A U.K. charity for people with cerebral palsy was founded in 1952 as the Spastic Society but eventually changed its name to Scope to avoid the insulting use of spastic. (Slang dictionaries record that scope or scoper then became a new insult for “an inept, clumsy or stupid individual” on British playgrounds.) In 2014, Weird Al Yankovic found himself on the receiving end of British criticism similar to what Lizzo and Beyoncé experienced, when he included spastic in his song “Word Crimes.” He tweeted an apology: “If you thought I didn’t know that ‘spastic’ is considered a highly offensive slur by some people… you’re right, I didn’t. Deeply sorry.”
As for spaz, also spelled spazz or spas, the earliest documented uses in American English show that it was related to wild or uncontrolled movements without necessarily targeting people with physical disabilities. In the fall of 1956, Yale University football coach Jordan Oliver was quoted by the Hartford Courant after a game against Cornell: “We were a little spasmodic, but when we didn’t ‘spaz’ we looked very good.” A year later, the syndicated business columnist J.A. Livingston used the verb in a more general way for unexpected movements in the stock market, writing that “jewelers, furriers, and furniture dealers go through… merchandising tortures whenever Wall Street spazzes.”
Meanwhile, spaz was entering collegiate slang. Joe Fineman, a 1958 graduate of Caltech, shared a journal entry that he wrote in 1956 on the language of his fellow students:
SPAZ, n.R (shortened from spastic) 1. Obsolete. A person lacking in the common social skills & virtues. See TWITCH. 2.
To surprise a person in a way that causes him to take some time to react. v.R
As Fineman explained on the Usenet newsgroup alt.usage.english in 2005, “The ‘R’ means ‘regional or national’—i.e., I was aware at the time that this was not just Caltech slang. The noun was, of course, obsolete only at Caltech, where it had been replaced by the allusive twitch.”
While the term may have been disfavored at Caltech, spaz continued its slangy existence elsewhere. In a review of the 1962 film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner for the magazine Moviegoer (later anthologized in I Lost It at the Movies), Pauline Kael wrote that spaz was “the term that American teen-agers now use as the opposite of ‘tough.’” But she was not entirely clear on the term’s origin: “‘Spaz’ (from spastic?) is probably a somewhat more brutally graphic way of saying someone’s a ‘jerk.’”
Kael’s question mark after “spastic” suggests that as the word’s American usage evolved, spaz was not directly linked to images of spastic paralysis. That continued to be the case in 1967, when the Welsh garage-rock group the Elastik Band released the single “Spazz,” with its crude refrain, “Get offa the floor, boy, people gonna think you’re a spazz.”
Spaz and its variants persisted on college campuses in the years to come. In a 1975 collection of slang terms used at the Fayetteville campus of the University of Arkansas published in the journal American Speech, spas was defined as an “uncoordinated, clumsy person” or a “person regarded as dull, foolish, or stupid.” In “jocular use,” it could also mean “friend,” as in, “Hey spas, do we have any homework?” (Later compilations of collegiate slang at UCLA and UNC Chapel Hill recorded spaz in common use in the ’80s and ’90s.)
As a mild or even affectionate putdown, spaz made its way into American popular culture. In 1978, when Steve Martin hosted Saturday Night Live, he played a character nicknamed “Chaz the Spaz” by fellow “nerds” Lisa (Gilda Radner) and Todd (Bill Murray). And the following year, the Bill Murray vehicle Meatballs featured the nerdy summer camper “Spaz” played by Jack Blum.
As it gained traction in American usage, however, spaz was also recognized as a potentially hurtful epithet. A 1975 handbook for daycare centers with programs for handicapped children listed spaz among slang terms that are “inaccurate and often hurt the feelings of a handicapped child and his family,” alongside cripple, freak, idiot, psycho, retard, and many others. And the folklorists Mary and Herbert Knapp, in their 1976 book One Potato, Two Potato … The Secret Education of American Children, included spaz in a section on hurtful names, noting that it could be “directed at a child who has done something awkward” and “not a child who is really spastic.”
As many observers of the Lizzo and Beyoncé controversies have argued, spaz, particularly in its use as a verb, as in spaz out, has its own history in Black American English. Victoria Gagliardo-Silver, writing in the Independent, said that while spaz may be “an ableist slur” in the UK, “in the US, the term is commonly used in African American Vernacular English with a different meaning, often referring to oneself being out-of-control or disorganized.” She continued, “Black, disabled Americans like myself have no experience of that term being used against us; the word has never been used as an insult in our own community. In both Lizzo’s and Beyoncé’s songs, they use it to describe their own actions. Context matters.”
[Read: Can Beyoncé Go Back to Just Being a Pop Star?]
Looking at how spaz has been used in hip-hop lyrics since the late ’90s reinforces this point. In his 1998 song “Reservoir Dogs,” for instance, Jay-Z raps, “To the death of me, I spaz like I’m on ecstasy.” The following year, spaz got used by rappers like Nas (“Spaz out, some times dreaming, think I’m awoke,” in “Favor for a Favor”), Foxy Brown (“Nice attitude even though I might spaz” in “I Can’t”), and Jay-Z again (“Homes spazzed like a bad back” in “Things That U Do”). Similar lines have peppered the lyrics of Method Man, Kanye West, Drake, Kendrick Lamar, and Nicki Minaj, among many others. N.E.R.D., the band led by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, titled a 2008 song “Spaz,” with the inviting chorus, “Spaz if you want to, spaz if you want.”
This is not the first time, however, that concerns over ableist language have led to lyrical changes. On their 2003 album Elephunk, the Black-Eyed Peas included the song “Let’s Get Retarded,” but it was re-recorded the following year as “Let’s Get It Started” when it got featured in NBA playoff commercials.
As times change, though, so do perspectives on what language is considered acceptable and what may cause offense. At the time of the controversy over Tiger Woods using spaz, I noted on the linguistics blog Language Log that the word was often seen as “innocuous playground slang in the U.S. but a grave insult in the U.K.” Now, 16 years later, spaz may no longer be considered so innocuous—particularly for American recording artists who are reaching out to international audiences and want be sensitive to how their words are received around the globe.