Beyoncé landed in hot water with the release of her new song Heated, track 11 on her seventh studio album Renaissance, by using what various commentators have called an ableist slur (“spaz”). How is it offensive, and what is the meaning of the word?
Renaissance, also titled Act I: Renaissance, came out on 29 July 2022.
We’ve previously written about Beyoncé’s interpolation of Kelis’ 2003 hit Milkshake; The Clark Sisters, whom Queen Bey sampled for Church Girl; collaborator Honey Dijon; and drag icon Moi Renee, honoured on Pure/Honey.
How and why is the word in question considered an ableist slur, how does its meaning differ between the US and UK, and what has been the public’s reaction to Beyoncé using it in her track?
Ableist critique of Beyoncé’s Heated explained
Originally, the meaning of the word “spastic” – the colloquial shorthand of which occurs twice in Beyoncé’s song – related to the symptoms of cerebral palsy and other central neurological disorders.
In medicine, the adjective “spastic” refers to a disruption in muscle movement patterns that involves certain muscles contracting all at once.
Spasticity is therefore a proper medical term. The symptom it describes interferes with movement and can involve muscle spasms, abnormal posture, and joint or bone deformities.
However, while it may relate to the medical term “spasticity”, the noun “spastic” and its shorter slang form are now considered by some to be among the most offensive terms in the English language.
How did ‘spastic’ go from being a medical term to an ableist slur?
The word comes from the Greek ‘spastikos’, meaning “shaking uncontrollably”. And it wasn’t always bad.
Readers in the UK may be familiar with the disability charity Scope, but it may come as a surprise that it was originally known as the National Spastics Society. It started up under that name in 1952. Capability Scotland, similarly, was formerly the Scottish Council for the Care of Spastics (founded in 1946).
Its derogatory use – as in, when people started to use it as an insult – grew in the 1980s. Some have attributed this to the BBC children’s TV show Blue Peter, which in 1981 featured a man with cerebral palsy. His name was Joey Deacon, but presenters described him as a “spastic”.
The word caught on in schools in the UK, along with “joey” and “deacon”. Outside medical contexts, the term is now deeply socially unacceptable in the UK. In 2003, a BBC survey found that “spastic” was the second most offensive term in the country to describe anyone with a disability.
Is it the same in the US?
In American slang – as opposed to British slang – the shorter version of the term has a slightly different meaning.
As Benjamin Zimmer of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institue for Research in Cognitive Science writes in his Language Log, its usage causes very different reactions among American and British readers.
In 2006, golfer Tiger Woods said during a post-round interview with CBS: “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 s**z.”
His comment caused “nary a ripple” in the US, Zimmer observes. But when it hit British newspapers, “there was a significant uproar”.
Did the meaning of Beyoncé’s use of the word in Heated amount to an ableist slur?
Towards the end of Beyoncé’s new song Heated, she uses the slur twice. In the context of the sentence in which it appears, her use of the word may not directly relate to the meaning described above – as in, describing someone with a disability.
Nevertheless, it caused offence.
It comes on the heels of Lizzo’s decision to re-release her song GRRRLS after Guardian columnist Hannah Diviney called out her use of the same word.
Diviney had the same criticism of Beyoncé, writing that “disabled people deserve better”, and Beyoncé has since confirmed that she will remove the word from the new song and re-release it.
So in the UK – the context in which Hannah Diviney made her comments – and at least on some level in the US, Beyoncé’s use of the word amounted to an ableist slur. Beyoncé’s decision to retract it suggests that she appreciates the legitimacy of the backlash.
But she also stressed in her statement that it was “not used intentionally in a harmful way”, and there does appear to be a difference in the meaning of the word in US contexts, compared to British contexts.