Mong. Spastic. Flid. When I was at school, in the 1970s, these were all insults used by other children, not by me or my friends. I don’t remember any of us using these words. Just typing them, nearly 40 years later, makes me feel uncomfortable. I thought that they had gone away in the 1980s, but since the early 2000s two of them have reared their ugly heads repeatedly. The exception is “Flid”, which wasn’t used much at my school but was a common term of abuse at my brother’s school. It’s short for “Thalidomide”, and was intended to suggest that the person being described was as physically challenged as the children born without arms or legs, after their mothers took Thalidomide during pregnancy. But “Mong” (short for Mongoloid, used to describe people with Down’s Syndrome) and “Spastic” (or “Spaz”) are back in common usage.
One morning, at school assembly, the headmaster gave a lecture about how unacceptable it was to use words like “Spastic” as terms of abuse. It didn’t really affect me, or the handful of friends around me. We wouldn’t have to change our language or our behaviour. At break-time the story went around that during the very next lesson, for one group of boys in my year, the PE teacher had encouraged one of the less athletic children with the unforgettable instruction, “Come on Lampkin, you Spastic!” Perhaps the headmaster’s lecture had been aimed at the teachers rather than the pupils.
I have seen an hour or more of the movie “Love, Actually”. I wasn’t enjoying it, even though I like a lot of the actors in it (Alan Rickman, may he rest in peace, Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson, Martin Freeman, Colin Firth, Nina Sosanye – a great cast). Colin Firth plays a writer, who looks likely to get involved with the (Portuguese?) maid before the end of the movie. Sometime after the hour-mark his manuscript gets blown away into the pond or lake outside the place where’s he’s staying. He rushes out. The maid is trying to gather the sodden pages but he is reluctant to jump in, afraid that he might flap around in an unheroic way. He suggests, either out loud or voiced over (I can’t remember which), that the maid will think less of him if he does so – she’ll probably think he’s a “spaz” (or “spazz” perhaps – maybe I should check the script for the correct spelling.). At this point I stopped watching and left the room. I found the inclusion of that word, in a movie made in 2004, completely unacceptable, unless it was to indicate that the person saying it is clearly a baddie. But the writer in the movie is clearly not a baddie. Other members of my family continued to watch the DVD. I never will, not even in the interests of noting down exactly what the Colin Firth character says, or to find out what happens in the end. I assume that it has a happy ending, and that the Colin Firth character doesn’t get punished for unacceptable language.