In one of Weird Al’s recent parodies, Word Crimes, about a prescriptivist’s rant against supposed language misuse, he sings:
Saw your blog post
It’s really fantastic
That was sarcastic
‘Cause you write like a spastic
When I heard this part of the song, my esteem for him immediately plummeted, as "spastic" is, in my world, a derogatory, dismissive term for a very energetic and/or clumsy and/or forgetful and/or fidgety and/or unintelligent person. It derives from "spastic" as a description for people, particularly those with cerebral palsy, because of their muscle spasms. Said spasms, which cause uncontrollable contractions and may cause involuntary movements, may cause a person’s limbs, head or core to shake. Speech may also be interrupted. People who didn’t know any better interpreted these spasm-induced movements as signs that disabled people were overly excitable, clumsy, forgetful, fidgety, uncoordinated, etc. It became a shorthand insult, which then itself was shortened to "spaz," a term most prevalent in the late 1970s and 1980s.
Let me tell you about muscle spasms, at least from my secondhand experience. My sister Jill, who has cerebral palsy, regularly experiences them. My ex-wife, who also had cerebral palsy, had them. Janna regularly has them as well. In all their cases, their muscle spasms manifest as uncontrollable twitching and jerking in the affected body parts. In all cases, the spasms cause them pain and sometimes keep them up at night. In none of their cases do their muscle spasms have any connection with their overall levels of energy, coordination, excitability, forgetfulness and/or fidgetiness. In none of their cases do their muscle spasms limit their brain functions. To take an adjective for disruptive, excruciating pain and transform it into a dismissive term for a silly person is a prime example of rank ableism.
This is why I object to Language Log’s discussion of Weird Al’s use of "spastic" and subsequent apology. Ben Zimmer, author of a post discussing the term, claims that "spaz" and "spastic" have "become innocuous playground slang in the U.S. but a grave insult in the U.K." He asserts that Weird Al apologized for using "spastic" primarily because it offended British listeners.
NO! You are wrong wrong wrongity wrong, Ben Zimmer. "Spaz" and "spastic" have always been derogatory and insulting because they transfer terms for disability into the realm of insult, thereby turning disabilities into insults. Weird Al should not have apologized because "spaz" is an insult over in the UK. He should have apologized because ableism is nasty and harmful in general the world over.
Anyway, even though he apologized for his ableism in Word Crimes, Weird Al’s ableism remains on display in his song Lame Claim to Fame. STOP USING "LAME" TO MEAN "PATHETIC" PEOPLE!