Tuesday Talk*: Words Even Lizzo Can’t Say

When I asked who Lizzo was, I was informed that she was “body positive” black woman singer whose hallmarks were “twerking” and calling people “bitches.” But even LIzzo has limits,apparently.

As a fat Black woman in America, I’ve had many hurtful words used against me so I overstand the power words can have (whether intentionally or in my case, unintentionally,)” she continued. “I’m proud to say there’s a new version of GRRRLS with a lyric change. This is the result of me listening and taking action. As an influential artist I’m dedicated to being part of the change I’ve been waiting to see in the world.

The original version of GRRRLS did not go as well as Lizzo expected.

Lizzo released the single, the second off her sophomore album Special, last Friday, but instead of a rapturous response, the song was quickly lambasted for one of its lyrics.

“Hold my bag, bitch,” the song goes, with Lizzo singing over a Beastie Boys sample. “Hold my bag/ Do you see this s—?/ I’m a sp-z/ I’m about to knock somebody out/ Yo, where my best friend?/ She the only one I know to talk me off the deep end.”

The word giving rise to offence is “spaz,” apparently so bad that it can’t even be spelled out in a story about it. The problem arose when someone twitted at Lizzo that she was offended by her use of the word “spaz.” The word “bitch” is still perfectly acceptable, of course.

After this twit came a flood of people who didn’t want to be complicit in Lizzo’s ableisst slur by not attacking Lizzo for uttering it. Lizzo, of course, capitulated, apologized and removed the word from her song.

“It’s been brought to my attention that there is a harmful word in my new song ‘GRRRLS,'” she shared in a Twitter post. “Let me make one thing clear: I never want to promote derogatory language.”

Was the word derogatory, or did one person with cerebral palsy take offense because of her particular sensitivity? Perhaps ironically, words denigrating people who suffer from debilitating disease or disability strike me as more worthy of challenge than others. Would you make fun of a person who had Down Syndrome or Fragile X Syndrome? Why would cerebral palsy be any different?

But the fact that spasticity is a component of CP isn’t what people tend to think about when someone uses the word “spaz,” which is generally taken to mean uncoordinated or having lost physical or emotional control. In other words, it’s no reflection on people with CP at all, except that the word, with a shift in slangish spelling, is also one related to Cerebral Palsy.

Does that make “spaz” taboo? While Lizzo is, of course, free to change her lyrics at her whim, was her use of the word “spaz” promoting derogatory language, for if so, then it suggests that anyone using the word in the future, after this “influential artist” has condemned the word, is being “ableist” and the word is now on the “hate speech” list of words that can never be uttered?

It’s hard to say with any certainty what words, or how many words, will be deemed to offend someone, no matter how the word is intended or used. It’s one thing to draw the line at the “n-word,” even if it, like “bitches,” is permissible for people of a certain demographic but not others. But “spaz”? Where does the line get drawn? How many people need to be offended for a word to be sufficiently hurtful that its use is no longer tolerable, or indicative of its user being an evil person?

And to put this into somewhat greater focus, note that the inclusion of the word “women” is fast becoming hate speech as excluding transgender people. Perhaps you agree that Lizzo’s use of “spaz” was needlessly derogatory, or that she’s entitled to adapt to whatever her fans demand of her, but what does that mean for the permissible language rest of us, assuming that we’re not trying to intentionally offend anyone, but might not be aware of the forbidden word of the day?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply, bitch.

29 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Words Even Lizzo Can’t Say

  1. Skink

    From the Office of the Word Oracle

    The Oracle investigated the word “happy” to determine its continued use. This word has negative connotation, as it has been scientifically linked to high-arousal positive (HAP), a mental state associated with increased consumption of alcohol. The Oracle takes no position on moderate drinking, but any increase from moderate is an obvious violation of everything. Therefore, this word is no longer a word.

    The Oracle gives not a single shitulance that a new song must be found for yearly rituals, even if it is the most recognized song in the English language, whatever is left of that.

  2. Joe O.

    It is way too hard to keep up with what’s okay to say and what’s not.

    Edit: I would like to take this opportunity to apologize for saying h-rd. I should have said “difficult.” I would like to apologize to all the penis-having people I may have offended.

  3. Mark Myers

    This level of cultivated fragility is reminiscent of the Eggshell skull rule.

    From Wikipedia: “The rule states that, in a tort case, the unexpected frailty of the injured person is not a valid defense to the seriousness of any injury caused to them.”

    The takeaway is clear. Before communicating, imagine all possible frailties along every conceivable axis of human experience, and then recognize that you have not gone far enough. Cleanse your words of harm in ways that do not even make sense to you, and then you may speak. Maybe.

    1. PK

      Quoting wikipedia about the law on a blawg is too much for me not to point it out and make fun of you at least a little. And I’m really trying to be nicer. Stop making it so difficult, please.

      1. Mark Myers

        It’s Tuesday, my dude. We are ever so slightly more chill than usual. I support your continued efforts at personal growth.

        Your point is well taken, of course.

  4. Jeff Davidson

    This surprises me, in that I’m usually way behind the curve on these kinds of issues. I’ve understood “spaz” to be perceived as a slur for probably 20 years or more. I’ve seen a lot of people called out on Twitter for its use as well. I’m happy that, at least in one respect, I am more contemporary than Lizzo.

  5. B. McLeod

    She’s not as “body positive” as Roxane Gay yet, but the day is coming. Lizzo’s shtick is that morbid obesity is a fine and good thing, and everybody ought to belly up to the trough.

    1. Guitardave

      I don’t think her belly will allow her to reach the trough…
      although there’s obviously some other way to get there.

  6. PK

    Apparently, it means if we mess up and forget to update our list of forbidden words and phrases daily, that we have to apologize publicly. Not the worst thing, but annoying enough to make at least some scared enough as to only speak in the vaguest terms possible, maybe, possibly, if all things are considered, with deference to everything and everyone. I’d rather have nearly all words be fair game except those which over longer periods of time have a derogatory meaning, usually racist or sexist, but some very loud and obnoxious people don’t agree.

    The internet is a mistake. But then, I was recently reminded that I’m white and male, so I would say all this, wouldn’t I?

    1. Jake

      With so many words that never offend anyone available, I like to think of it as a puzzle to be continuously solved. Though I do miss using the word ‘fucktard’ -after seeing a friend do something stupid.

    2. Hal

      White and male?!? You’re literally “the embodiment of the patriarchy” (as attentive readers will recognize as something someone once said to me). And arguing that you’re actually that you’re actually a pinkish tan, being “male bodied”is beyond your control, and so woke that you only watch porn that will pass the Bechdel test won’t alleviate your guilt.

    3. Hunting Guy

      Do a 23 and Me or Ancestry.com DNA test and see what’s hidden in the woodpile.

      I never knew I was Hispanic or Sudanese until the test came back.

      I now identify with double minority status.

      1. Guitardave

        Are you implying the possibility that “there’s an African in the fuel supply”?
        Oh my.

      2. Paleo

        My mother has done the genealogy thing and mapped both sides of my family back to before the Revolution. Turns out (unlike Senator Warren) that the stories regarding Cherokees in my ancestry were very true and that I’ve got a whole branch of Cherokee back there, including the great Chief Doublehead (my 7x great uncle). Some of my folks got to experience the trail of tears.

        Does this allow me to be triggered by Oklahomans? Seeing Jackson on the $20? I need to know what I’m allowed to overreact to.

  7. Drew Conlin

    Remember the old days? The Estes Kefauver high school yearbook 1964 courtesy of National Lampoon
    There was a kid I can’t find his name but his nickname was spaz… he was in remedial reading 1,2,3,4 and had a class called breathing for credit…. That might not go over well these days that’s too bad; it’s funny.

    1. Guitardave

      Musical Note: Floyd Cramer on keys, Boots Randolph on sax, and Buddy Rich on the skins.
      And yes, Spasm IS a musical term, no matter what The Blob says.

      1. Jeff Davidson

        You and Howl have done good work on this post, as always. I was expecting Ian Dury to make an appearance, but you two are always more subtle than me.

  8. Bryan Burroughs

    The local ball club’s “character” announcer is named “Spaz” and is always acting comparably to his name… Greensboro is about to get wrekt!

  9. Dan T.

    Weird Al Yankovic got some criticism for including the word “spastic” in his song “Word Crimes”, thus committing a word crime himself. As far as I know he hasn’t changed the lyric, however.

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