"Weird Al" Yankovic has taken over the internet with his cunning #8videos8days Mandatory Fun rollout strategy (which ends today). But it wouldn't be a true online takeover without a little bit of Tumblr-igniting controversy. That would seem unlikely for Weird Al, whose squeaky clean song parodies' most biting targets tend to be located within the canned meat industry, but his "Word Crimes" video has taken a cue from its Robin Thicke source material and incited its own slow-burn backlash.
Here's the offending lyric:
Saw your blog post
It's really fantastic
That was sarcastic (Oh, psych!)
'Cause you write like a spastic
You may have heard the word "spastic" or "spaz" colloquially and thought nothing of it (maybe even on TV), but, as this article thoroughly outlines, it's a much sharper trigger in places like the U.K., where it's more commonly recognized as an offensive slur for people with disabilities like cerebral palsy. Instead of trying to explain his faux pas away like so many pop stars (e.g. "I'm sorry if you're offended"), Al promptly apologized.
If you thought I didn’t know that “spastic” is considered a highly offensive slur by some people… you’re right, I didn’t. Deeply sorry.
— Al Yankovic (@alyankovic) July 20, 2014
So that's that, right? Well, no. The problem with "Word Crimes" extends beyond that one word. Instead, it's the attitude it represents, a presupposition of one perfect version of "proper English" that should seamlessly transcribe from an English classroom to a reddit post to a text message. The danger in that prescriptivist approach to language extends beyond a few linguistic wonks and their journals. It's a classist, ableist orientation that artificially flattens structural differences in education, wealth, vernacular and, in some cases, race.
If you're a dyslexic kid, calling you a "dumb mouthbreather" or telling you to "get out of the gene pool," let alone joking that I "want to literally/smack a crowbar upside your stupid head" isn't going to "educate ya."
Of course, equating the singer of a song with the artist who sings it is mistake #1 of internet outrage, especially when said artist is the world's best known parody singer. Reading "Weird Al" Yankovic as an English language prescriptivist himself might be just a tad too literal. Maybe the joke is on the grammar pedants, which would explain why the song ends (yes, purposely) with a split infinitive. But tell that to your friends posting the video on Facebook and see what they say.