Where is William
Safire when Tiger Woods needs him? The eminent etymologist, semi-retired from
his job as a New York Times columnist, has not yet written about the golfer's
recent statement that he putted like "a spaz" at the Masters. If Safire
does address the subject, he will probably observe that spaz, which is North
American slang for a clumsy or awkward person, comes from the noun spastic,
defined in my American Heritage dictionary as "a person suffering from
muscular spasms or spastic paralysis." He will note that while it received
almost no notice here in the U.S., the self-deprecating gibe became a topic of
controversy in other English-speaking countries, where spastic is still used to
describe a person suffering from certain medical conditions.
It's my guess
that Safire would realize, as well, that 2006 is a Ryder Cup year. That should
lead him to the word gamesmanship--"the method or art of winning a game or
contest by means of unsportsmanlike behavior or other conduct which does not
actually break the rules."
English author Stephen Potter argued in a series of books published between
1947 and '52, seek competitive advantage by unsettling opponents prior to or
during competition. In a typical ploy the gamesman interprets an act or remark
as a slight or insult requiring an apology. ("Tiger meant nothing
derogatory to any person or persons," his agent announced on April 11,
"and apologizes for any offense caused.") This line of thinking
suggests a nice follow-up ploy: having members of Great Britain's Disability
Rights Commission picket the Dublin airport when the U.S. Ryder Cup team lands
there in September.
Now, if I were
Safire (and I do, in fact, possess both a wing chair and an unabridged
dictionary), I would conflate the spaz imbroglio by enumerating other examples
of words or actions that are inoffensive in one nation but insulting in
another. The Hook 'em Horns gesture, for instance, signifies cuckoldry in
certain European countries. Similarly, the intransitive verb root, as in "I
root for the Yankees"--from the Middle English routen and the Latin rudere,
"to roar"--can get the speaker into deep trouble in Australia, where
root is a slang expression for sexual intercourse.
would do well to drop spaz from his lexicon. If he does, he will be following
the good example of the British charity Scope, whose spokesman said of the
Masters mess, "All Scope asks is that people--particularly in the public
sphere--watch what they say."
name, as Safire would surely note with glee: the Spastics Society.