Where is WilliamSafire when Tiger Woods needs him? The eminent etymologist, semi-retired fromhis job as a New York Times columnist, has not yet written about the golfer'srecent statement that he putted like "a spaz" at the Masters. If Safiredoes address the subject, he will probably observe that spaz, which is NorthAmerican slang for a clumsy or awkward person, comes from the noun spastic,defined in my American Heritage dictionary as "a person suffering frommuscular spasms or spastic paralysis." He will note that while it receivedalmost no notice here in the U.S., the self-deprecating gibe became a topic ofcontroversy in other English-speaking countries, where spastic is still used todescribe a person suffering from certain medical conditions.
It's my guessthat Safire would realize, as well, that 2006 is a Ryder Cup year. That shouldlead him to the word gamesmanship--"the method or art of winning a game orcontest by means of unsportsmanlike behavior or other conduct which does notactually break the rules."
Gamesmen, asEnglish author Stephen Potter argued in a series of books published between1947 and '52, seek competitive advantage by unsettling opponents prior to orduring competition. In a typical ploy the gamesman interprets an act or remarkas a slight or insult requiring an apology. ("Tiger meant nothingderogatory to any person or persons," his agent announced on April 11,"and apologizes for any offense caused.") This line of thinkingsuggests a nice follow-up ploy: having members of Great Britain's DisabilityRights Commission picket the Dublin airport when the U.S. Ryder Cup team landsthere in September.
Now, if I wereSafire (and I do, in fact, possess both a wing chair and an unabridgeddictionary), I would conflate the spaz imbroglio by enumerating other examplesof words or actions that are inoffensive in one nation but insulting inanother. The Hook 'em Horns gesture, for instance, signifies cuckoldry incertain European countries. Similarly, the intransitive verb root, as in "Iroot for the Yankees"--from the Middle English routen and the Latin rudere,"to roar"--can get the speaker into deep trouble in Australia, whereroot is a slang expression for sexual intercourse.
Woods, meanwhile,would do well to drop spaz from his lexicon. If he does, he will be followingthe good example of the British charity Scope, whose spokesman said of theMasters mess, "All Scope asks is that people--particularly in the publicsphere--watch what they say."
Scope's formername, as Safire would surely note with glee: the Spastics Society.
by RICK LIPSEY
Overzealous parents hear this: Aaron Baddeley didn'ttake up golf until he was 13.
Woods's self-mockery at Augusta was described as unfunny and insensitive bysome Europeans.