Spastics, cretins and the political correctness of the right

23 June 2014

4:25 PM

23 June 2014

4:25 PM

Ruth Richards, head of communications at Mind, has written a response to my criticism of the pointlessness of politically correct descriptions of the mentally ill and handicapped. As you would expect it is worth reading in full, but I am afraid it left me unconvinced.

She thinks that the effort to reshape language is worthwhile, and cannot see how today’s polite discourse will become tomorrow’s insults.

‘I don’t agree that in however many years’ time the terms we use today will become offensive in their own right. “Person with mental health problems” is just far too clunky to be shouted in the playground.’

So it is. But ‘mental’ is already an insult, and other attempts to change the world merely by twiddling with language have been equally futile. To quote the most striking instance, in 1994, the Spastics’ Society changed its name to ‘Scope’. One could not fault the motives of its rewrite men and women. Valerie Lang, a member of the executive council of the Spastics’ Society at the time, who had cerebral palsy herself, said the charity ‘could not afford’ to stay with the name it had. ‘Children would shout to each other “You big spastic” every time someone was clumsy or even if they just disagreed with them.’ Now she looks back with pride, on what she achieved

‘People had ceased to think of those with cerebral palsy as individuals. We might have a brain injury in common but we are all different and don’t want to be put in a box labelled “spastic”.’

Thus ‘spastic’ – a term which was originally meant kindly – has gone. But Ms Lang and her friends paid the usual price. People, who understood a word, did not understand the circumlocutions that replaced it. Instead of campaigning for better treatment for people with cerebral palsy, activists wasted political energy on correcting language and telling off innocent speakers for their failure to keep up with fashion. All for nothing. True, ‘spastic’ vanished from the language of everyone but yobs, as Ms Lang hoped it would. But the compilers of the Urban Dictionary now have a new entry.


School children of a certain age liked to use the word spastic or more commonly spaz as a term of abuse for other children. The Spastic Society, a UK charity, became aware of this and changed their name to Scope. A scopey is hence a byword for spaz.

“That chap is a wee bit scopey.”’


As this usage spreads how long before the politically correct insist that Scope changes its name? How long before we go off again on the game of pretending that changing language is a good or even adequate substitute for confronting need and prejudice? For as long as both exist no attempts at rewriting the dictionary will succeed. Today’s euphemisms will become tomorrow’s terms of abuse because they do not confront social problems but seek to wish them away with a twist of the tongue.

There is no more insulting term than ‘cretin’. Yet in the Eighteenth Century, it had a specific meaning – a sufferer from iodine deficiency, and the stunted growth, deformity and brain damage that accompanied it. More to the point, far from being an insult, ‘cretin’ was an appeal to the public’s conscience.

Peasants farming the poor soils of the Alpine valleys were prone to iodine deficiency. Good-hearted people, trying to spare sufferers from abuse and humiliation, derived ‘cretin’ from the French Alpine dialect word for Christian. They wanted to remind others that the afflicted were fellow believers, equally worthy of respect and God’s love.

At the heart of this argument is a debate about language. I hope I am not distorting Ruth Richards’s position when I say that like so many others she believes that you can bring about change by changing words; that by rubbing out ‘sufferer’ and ‘victim’ – and indeed ‘cretin’ and ‘spastic’ – she can make society respect ‘persons with mental health problems’, and see them as ’empowered’ and ‘independent’ individuals. At one point she says:

‘We’ve asked our supporters and members, and you told us you didn’t see yourselves as victims. You told us you wanted to be empowered to take control of your own lives and to fight for the support you need. So we reflect that.’

I believe that you should use language plainly and that those who do not slip into propaganda. It is not true, that ‘persons’ suffering from serious mental illnesses and handicaps are empowered, and it is false to pretend that they are anything other than sufferers in need of help. It would be nice if it was, but it isn’t.

Just as all the current enthusiasm for ’empowering’ the elderly, and insisting that ’80 is the new 70′, and other such wishful, boosterish guff, soon runs into the hard facts of dementia and chronic illness, so pretending that ‘persons with mental health problems’ are not ‘victims’ or ‘sufferers’, if their ailments are anything other than minor, ignores the pain of the seriously ill. If you cannot admit this plainly, you play into the hands of those on the Right who are all too eager to cut funding for the sick and handicapped. It is no coincidence, as we old Marxists used to say, that political correctness has marched with neo-liberalism. Obscurantist language allows the assault on services, because it so mystifies and misleads the public that few understand why taxpayer support is needed.

I admit that I believe in plain language regardless of the political consequences. I would be a linguistic conservative in all circumstances, simply because if you want readers to understand you, you should stick to common usage, and not lose them by over complicating. (If readers throw down my writing in disgust, I want it to be because they have understood my ideas and rejected them, not because I have written so badly they can’t bear another moment in my company.) But I also believe – or, rather, hope – that clear language leads to a better society. I cannot often prove my point, but this time, surely I can.

In the case of the severely sick, even Ms Richards must see that political correctness is politically disastrous.

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Show comments
  • Katabasis

    Is there another Nick Cohen who has written this piece?

    Or have we entered an alternate dimension where Nick Cohen does not mostly write for the thoroughly authoritarian, censorious, perpetually offended, blame-everything-on-white-males Guardian/Observer?

  • Rose Grayston

    This is interesting, but in the end I think Nick is confusing political correctness with linguistic activism, if that isn’t too crass a term… It’s one thing to take a word considered offensive and stigmatising and replace it with something neutral, bland and probably “clunky” in the manner of spastic vs. person with cerebral palsy. It’s quite another to reject old labels and replace them with new terms that reflect a positive identity, or reclaim some of those stigmatising labels to poke fun at society’s inability to see a socially oppressed group as anything other than victims.

    This bit is the most revealing for me:

    “pretending that ‘persons with mental health problems’ are not ‘victims’ or
    ‘sufferers’, if their ailments are anything other than minor, ignores the pain
    of the seriously ill. If you cannot admit this plainly, you play into the hands
    of those on the Right who are all too eager to cut funding for the sick and

    Because of course there are many “persons with mental health problems” and a whole host of other conditions and impairments who really do not see themselves as victims or sufferers – at least not of anything other than the poor attitudes of those who consider themselves “normal” – and shouldn’t have to. Indeed, many disabled people even have higher aspirations for themselves and their fellow travellers than maintaining Government funding “for the sick and handicapped”.

    But they’re probably just getting uppity.

    • Ravi Samuel

      Well what about ‘blind’? Very clear. Now we have ‘sight impaired’ which can include everyone who wears glasses. There is also ‘deaf’. Perfectly clear. Now we have ‘hearing impaired’ which covers every chap whose hearing is not perfect. The older words were clearer. I also do not know what on earth can be pejorative about calling someone ‘blind’ or ‘deaf’ if they cannot see or hear.

  • David Glen

    I don’t understand folks round here.
    Article writers on this site regularly lambast illness and ill people. Whole illnesses have been denied, the disabled are regularly blamed for economic woes and any attempts to discuss the language surrounding disability is roundly dismissed as the action of ‘brownshirts’ – an analogy that stands up on half a leg only when the right like to point out the socialist in National Socialist.
    Within close orbit of sites like this you will soon come across contempt for charities as well, apparently more ‘communist fascist’ organizations, and you won’t feel on another planet bumping into Randian notions of the evils of altruism.

    Nobody ever thought that counter – acting hate via education might be a summa of rationalist ideals rather than frothing at the mouth because someone is sick to the back teeth of having to battle the mind set of ‘spaz’ and ‘scopey’ everyday? You really think these kind of appeals are some thin edge of a leftist conspiracy – at the same time as pointing out the poor performance of communist states in this regard?

    I don’t see why ‘libertarian’ thought can’t address these issues humanly. It would help I think, otherwise you come across as grumpy old men moaning that you can’t call people spacca anymore.

  • Thomtids

    Falklands’ War slang…Locals = “Bennies”.
    Senior Office finds out and orders an immediate change.
    Some weeks later is pleased that his Command now refer to locals as”Stills”.
    “Stills” = “Still Bennies.
    Neuro-linguistics, a much over-rated Goebbelian ploy.

  • Alison

    “There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness…; and the other, the only kind that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.” Stefan Sweig. It seems to me that this obsession with labelling people in the most politically correct way is merely the first kind of pity. Useless. However, conservatives believe that human beings are all unique individuals. It is socialists and former communists like you who insist on labelling individuals as groups. These groups can then be dealt with by the spending of public money. Sorted. Conscience salved, move on, nothing more to see here.

  • ReefKnot

    I am reminded of the soldiers in the Falklands who referred to the Islanders as Bennies, after the dim-witted Benny in the soap Crossroads. Their Officers instructed them to stop using the term because it was offensive. When asked why the soldiers then referred to them as ‘stills’ the response was “they’re still Bennies”.

  • Mr Grumpy

    Mr Cohen is capable of writing excellent stuff unitl he starts worrying that his friends may think he’s turned Tory. Then he descends into pure Dave Spart.
    Who exactly are “those on the Right who are all too eager to cut funding for the sick and handicapped”? As opposed to those who have the job of balancing the books and who know that it doesn’t help matters if benefits are squandered on people who don’t need them? Name names, Mr Cohen!

    • GraveDave

      Why don’t you name the squanderers instead? Oh, I know – ! Let’s just watch Benefits Street or read the Daily Mail. Okay. And they are NOT balancing the books. If anything IDS and his reforms have cost millions more than anything they’ve managed to save. They’ve even cut legal aid so the truly vulnerable have an even harder time challenging bad decisions. And sadists and sychopaths -? No, a wee bit harsh that. So say sorry to Mr Grumpy Nick.
      After all, someone has to get tough on all these lazy gimps and over weight smokers. Just look what they’re doing to the country.

      • Mr Grumpy

        Well, I’m glad to have given you the opportunity to get that off your ch*st. Just on a point of information: IDS – s**ist, p**chopath or both?

        (sorry about the *’s but I’m not sure which one is the naughty word)

  • anyfool

    What you PC pillocks do is cause damage and danger to mentally handicapped children especially, if someone is slow to react or cannot frame the right response in any given situation, these children will because of PC demands, that they are treated as normal with no possible reference to their disabilities, they will be put or left in dangerous situations by other children, because they will act towards them in that light.
    Parents want their disabled children to be allowed to mix and play with other children, it does them more good than all the mickey mouse therapies and idiotic warblings of the so called care professionals.
    With this association in the rough and tumble of normal playground and social activities comes the danger of other children not recognising that although mentally disabled children need this social relationship, they also need looking out for and must be guarded against themselves and others, the simple act of climbing can have devastating consequences even from a foot or so in height as instability or poor coordination can turn minor into major occurrence.
    This is why other children should be made aware of each child`s situation then at least they can tailor their own actions to suit, you can never run the world to avoid the odd mean remark, especially ones that PC protagonists rail against, because it affects their guilt complexes more than the child it is aimed at.

  • Donafugata

    One of the techniques used by teachers of English to stimulate class discussion was to elicit ideas and write everything suggested on the whiteboard. This technique is not confined to teachers but it was usually know as ” brainstorming”, a lovely word, IMO.
    Suddenly the word became tabu out of sensitivity to anyone with violent changes of mood.

    In France one can still use the term ” handicapé ” and Italians wishing to insult the Christian Democrats are allowed to refer to them as “cretini”.

    For all the madness of the EU, political correctness, especially in choice of words, hardy exists.

  • William_Brown

    Quite. Observe how quickly the term ‘special needs’ became a derogatory shorthand descriptor.

    This debate is a snapshot of an unwitting fascism; one which the left have embraced with unseemly vigour of late.

  • random_observer_2011

    Quite right, if the motives of people like Richards are as described. New terms will always descend into insult in their turn, and this human habit of denigrating the weak will in any case never be eliminated entirely.
    But there is another way of looking at it. Most of the old terms may have been created with very specific technical definitions in mind, but have been unmoored from them for a hundred or more years in the public mind, and live on only as insults. At best, they sound both unnecessarily generalized and archaic.
    “Person with mental health problems” is general but accurate. For specifics, if one knows and needs to know in particular cases, one can cite the actual illness involved. “Person with cerebral palsy”, etc. How is this not an improvement in accuracy?
    Among older terms, “schizophrenic” is among the few that retains medical utility but most people already think it means someone with a split personality, a battle that seems to have been lost.
    It seems to me that the old terms are the ones that are becoming obscurantist, if they have not become so already. I’m 43 years old and never knew what actual disease(s) to associate with the term ‘spastic’ and never heard the latter word used once other than as a playground insult. Then again I live in Canada. I think official use of ‘spastic’ disappeared 50 years ago here.

    • McQueue

      I wouldn’t say kids or humans are prone to “denigrating the weak”. Rather they were imbuing what were considered as negative attributes comparative to others – I don’t think many people have ever gone around calling actual people with disabilities names, they call their mates names most of the time – it wasn’t sinister, just insensitive, given it was being used in mockery (just not to the actual afflicted) – Kids will always do this, they don’t mean harm such as denigration.

    • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

      I understand “spastic” describes limbs that have contracted for whatever reason eg perhaps because of some nerve injury. Spasticity used to be a common medical term – with it’s opposite being “flaccidity” ie floppyness. It’s still commonly used where I come from, but never as a term of abuse.

  • alabenn

    You and your left wing kind started with perfectly normal poor working class kids, you then subjected them to years of dumbed down education, when they could not gain employment you and your smug lefty fellow creeps, are now, as your little hero Miliband indicated, going to punish them by removing benefits from them unless, they go back and suffer more failed education and training that your kind destroyed their lives with.
    Blaming the kids for your shortcomings is a sight more odious than anything I have witnessed the so called right doing, so why would anyone with a real physical or mental disability believe a word that spews out of the mouth of the left.
    Best leave the right to put things right, you lot want have a vested interest in keeping a large group with manufactured disabilities and imaginary mental shortcomings.

    • GraveDave

      And what did the right to rectify it throughout their tenure. Fuckall.

  • Frums

    This is surely just a rehash of the old debate about whether the disabled should be seen and treated equally with everyone else (their “difference” being no more and no less than the differences we all exhibit in one way or another and which, broadly speaking, we all learn to accommodate in each other) or whether their difference makes them special and therefore entitled to a privileged status in society.

  • hugo761

    ‘You’re so gay’, is a pejorative term in school grounds across the land. You’ve gotta laugh at the creativity of kids haven’t you?

    • MikeF

      Maybe one day they will start shouting ‘Guardian reader’ in the way that the left use a supposed affinity with the Daily Mail or Sun as a term of opprobrium.

      • Michael H Kenyon

        I already use “Guardian drone” as an insult. It doesn’t half upset them.

    • McQueue

      and the beauty is they don’t even get the homosexual reference

      • hugo761

        My nephew is a twelve year old, and he certainly gets the homosexual reference.

        • McQueue

          My kids are fifteen and sixteen and sure, they know the origin, but they call anything that is rubbish (not refuse, rather meaning bad) “gay” – language changes – to imply homophobia is to be one of the professionally offended.

          • hugo761

            In many cases it could be homophobic, whatever that means, and no, I’m not offended. Kids today very well know the full meaning of ‘gay’, and to say that somehow they’re unaware of the full implications of what they choose to use as an insult, is in itself an insult to their intelligence.

            • McQueue

              Or there is the other view which says people who get offended should get over it. Angry at humanity? Want everyone to change because you are offended? mmmmyeh, issues. better to have freedom of speech including freedom to insult – to appease everyone is to accept the lowest common denominator of totalitarian collectivism.

              • hugo761

                Did you not read my comment? I said I was NOT offended. In fact I applaud those kids for kicking back at the politically correct who seek to control us through the manipulation of language.

  • MikeF

    Another example is the replacment of ‘mentally handicapped’ – a term that correctly identifies an intrinsic lack of capability – by ‘with learning difficulties’ – a term that denotes a symptom and one that could apply equally to someone with dyslexia. Yes some words and phrases become tainted but the ultimate reality is that some people for no fault of their own simply lack the capability to lead independent lives and can only be supported. A vocabulary of evasions and euphemisms does not alter that fact.
    But this form of language is also dangerous because it derives from the left’s belief in human perfectability and as such seems to imply that the people involved can somehow be ‘improved’ – hence it contains the seeds of the idea that they can be blamed for their condition if they do not ‘improve’. It is no accident that treatment for the mentally ill and handicapped in the old eastern bloc, for instance, was generally very poor. Such people contradicted the official belief system by their very existence.

    • Grumpy

      I too am confused by this term and its variants. How do I determine who has “mild learning difficulties”, plain “learning difficulties” and “severe learning difficulties” from those people I knew in my youth as ESN (educationally sub-normal), mentally deficient (MDs), mentally handicapped or just plain thick? There also seems to be a problem of identity theft. Illiterates claim the real illness of dyslexia, lazy bastards claim Myasthenia and anti-social nutters claim to be “bi-polar”. Of course Druggies and Alkies are now “substance dependent”–how long before rapists and wife beaters claim “alternative affection syndrome”?

      • Donafugata

        Your refreshing choice of words has given me a good laugh, thanks, Grumpy.

  • Colonel Mustard

    “If you cannot admit this plainly, you play into the hands of those on the Right who are all too eager to cut funding for the sick and handicapped. It is no coincidence, as we old Marxists used to say, that political correctness has marched with neo-liberalism.”

    What was it you wrote about manipulative language? The one thing you can rely on is the left, even the “re-constructed” left, dodging and weaving by clever manipulation of language to evade any responsibility for the ghastly consequences of their long-peddled creed.

    Yes, Nick, it is all the fault of the Right and “neo-liberalism” (itself a re-invented word of the left to cudgel the right). We believe you.

    • GraveDave

      What makes you Right though? Btw, Right used to mean correct. Why label yourself anyway. Because I thank in this day and age, and with all these changes, we all need to leave a bit of scope.
      I also think Nick’s quite right on this one.

      • Colonel Mustard

        In that case it’s right rather than Right. Nothing makes me right. It is all subjective and arguable. Except that the Left don’t think that. They always think they are right about everything.

        But trying to blame the left wing reality of political correctness (© circa 1968) on the left wing re-invented and absolutely bogus concept of neo-liberalism (© circa 1980s) is stretching it even for the literary gymnastics of Cohen.

        • GraveDave

          In that case it’s right rather than Right.

          Yes, you’re Right – I mean -right.

  • Chris Bond

    How about we just refer to mentally ill people as “left wing” or “progressive”?

    • GraveDave

      Because the Right also has its fair share of buffoons.

    • gildedtumbril

      Brilliant! I like it. Spot on.

  • agneau

    Never heard of “scopey”, and my kids never heard of it. Spastic and spaz were common when I was a kid. PC seems to have worked by massively reducing offensive use of names for disabilities.

    • GraveDave

      Never heard of “scopey”,
      You probably have but it didn’t permeate. Now you’re aware, you will start hearing it. Btw , you’re not a scopey are yer?

    • fubar_saunders

      what concerns me is that my old trade in the air force had the nickname of “scopies”. To be honest, I might just join the ranks of the professionally offended as a result.

  • AnotherOldBoy

    As a long time donor to the Spastics Society I thought the change to Scope was pretty pointless at the time. I predicted – in jest, but it seems, accurately, that “scopie” would become a term of abuse.

  • Steve Moxon

    PC is far worse than it’s made out here. It is the brownshirt enforcement wing of ‘identity politics’, which is the ultimate bastardisation of Marxism as an attempt to salve the cognitive-dissonance of the political-Left mindset unable to reconcile its complete disjoin with reality. To replace the recalcitrant ‘workers’, the mutts had to come up with a bunch of at least half-plausible supposedly disadvantaged ‘groups’; so they just held up a mirror to their stereotype of ‘the worker’ (as male, ‘white’, and heterosexual) to come up with women, ethnic-minorities and homosexuals — none of which are blanket categories of any sort of disadvantage, of course (women are always privileged — especially in the West — many ethnic migrant groups out-perform the hosts, and lesbians have never been ‘oppressed’ as have ‘gays’). To this was added the old and, latterly, fatties; and also some actually disadvantaged categories: cripples and loonies. The whole shebang is an attempt to perpetrate the greatest political fraud in all history: to pass off the virulent elitist-separatism of Lefties (who in this are just like everyone else, but unlike everyone else are duty bound to emphatically deny it) as a drive to egalitarianism.

    • gildedtumbril

      ‘Cognitive dissonance’, there will probably be a vaccine offered for that along with ‘Flying Pig Flu’, when it strikes. Do not, under any circumstances accept the vaccine. It will kill you.

  • global city

    You just can’t help yourself can you? The worst treatment in post war history of all kind of people with various ailments or conditions were in those bastions of left wing enlightenment like socialist Albania, China and the USSR.

    You may wish to disassociate them from the false belief you have in ‘left is morally well intended’ but everyone else knows different.

    It is only in the right wing, capitalist west that these conditions are viewed in any positive way at all.

    See what the view is amongst the Maoists (or are they Trots, I can never remember) in Southern Africa about people with AIDS.

    Stop hankering for acceptance amongst the Left. It is pointless.

  • Mrs Josephine Hyde-Hartley

    I’ve come to think the word “affected” is a great word that can really, truly and kindly respect the person. Somehow it would seem kinder and probably more truthful to defer to persons who are affected by the mental health act, for example.. or refer to children affected by health and social care/ofsted/ schools policy.

    • Mc

      Perhaps you’ve misunderstood what Mr Cohen said. One of his points mentions that each time the PC brigade adopts a new word to replace one that has become an insult, the new word is adopted also as an insult (e.g. Scopey replaces spastic as an insult). Similarly, I can see “affected” becoming “affie” or “fecky”.

      His other main point is that instead of ineffectually wasting time on changing language on the misguided assumption that it’ll eliminate unkindness, rather expend time on trying to solve the mental or physical disability.

      What Cohen hasn’t touched on is that people see through and resent the PC bandwagon for its primary objective of controlling and stigmatizing people who don’t have the same views as the PC Police

  • Gareth

    “Infidel” is now used in the playground….

    • gildedtumbril

      Unfortunately we have imported a huge number of infidels and the aliens breed like rats.

    • Donafugata

      I’d be insulted if I wasn’t called an infidel.

  • disqus_JXTaH3N9kU

    “Empowered” is a horrible word. Worse than “scopey” for sure.

    • global city

      It is utterly patronising… saying that ‘you people have been done a favour by us self righteous lefties…and you should be greatful’

      • answeeney

        ‘…and you should be greatful.’

        That really greats.

        • global city

          erm, yes. I’m full of those.

  • Kitty MLB

    ‘ Empowering the Elderly’ are these the same elderly people that had their pensions
    taken from them. Also the same elderly people left in hospital beds and mistreated.
    ‘Victim’ and ‘Sufferer’ Its important that people with such conditions like dementia
    are cared for and treated with dignity and recognised But turning them into a victim or sufferer is leftie soggy goobledygook. People are allowed self respect, they are not their to be patted on the head ,for that is also abuse.

  • Kitty MLB

    You really are an old Marxist with your somewhat confused view. The sick and disabled are not having their funding cut. And basically if Labour were not giving
    other peoples money away like sweeties until they nearly bankrupted the shop–
    and left the note saying: there is no money left, then we would have more money for
    those who are genuine.. Labour mess it up and Conservatives clean it up.
    Yes children do call other children names and bully and use words that are a mismatch of real illnesses to insult, some children are plain horrible but you must ask
    how do their families speak, are they taught respect.. parental responsibility and all that.
    Yes plain language, getting straight to the point and being honest.

    • GraveDave

      You really are an old Marxist with your somewhat confused view. The sick and disabled are not having their funding cut.
      They have though.

      And you really need to stop spouting given mantra about ‘Marxists’ and ‘lefties’ and do some independent research to see just how much money is actually being wasted by your chums in blue on some of their own silly, wasteful, causes.
      You really would be surprised you know.

      • Whyshouldihavetoregister

        Government wastes (our) money. It’s what governments do. You seem to want that to happen, so I don’t know why you’re complaining about the LibDems (they’re in government, so I assume that’s who you mean by ‘your chums in blue’) doing it.

        • GraveDave

          Don’t talk bloody daft. I just don’t see the point of this childish blame game that goes on endingly between Tory and Labour/ Right and Left when no one party or system is responsible for the mess we’re now in.In any case Dave’s a ‘modernist’ -right?