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Michael Douglas, after throwing a wobbly in 'Falling Down'

We’ve all been told off by someone who’s gone way past the end of their tether, someone who’s lost all sense of perspective and is just shouting because they need to express their pain and fury, rather than out of any desire to communicate something that will have any impact on you, the listener.

Once you get past “you need to understand how I feel” and into “AND ANOTHER THING I HATE ABOUT YOU IS…” the person you’re desperately hoping will soon calm down can be said to have thrown a wobbly.They’ve gone beyond rational discourse and into a world of emotional purge. They’ve chucked a wobbler, they’ve got all minty, they’re having a benny fit.

Of course, it’s often hotly contested whether someone is actually throwing a wobbly or is justifiably angry about something you’ve done. Even after the confrontation has calmed, it’s probably not a good idea to use the expression to describe what happened, unless you’re describing it to a third party. You’re basically saying that the thing they got so angry about isn’t important, their reaction is, and that’s kind of inflammatory.

Naturally, if you’ve just been shouted at, focusing on the shouting and away from the thing that caused all of the shouting in the first place is very reassuring, so that’s why these terms exist.

Now, as with all slang, there’s a dark side to this expression. Another term which tends to pop up is throwing (or chucking) an eppy, where eppy is short for epileptic seizure. A line has been drawn between the intensity of the telling-off, and the violent spasming of a Grand Mal seizure. And it’s been done deliberately, so that the person who’s been told off can pretend it’s not their fault.

You’re shouting at me? Over THIS? There must be something wrong with you.

Then there’s spaz out or have a spaz. In Britain, the root of spaz is entirely to do with the medical condition cerebral palsy, and the word spastic, which used to be the correct medical term for people who have it. It’s one of those words that is frowned upon hugely, one of those words which is sometimes hotly contested by anyone who claims to despise political correctness, but in the end, using it is adding insult to injury, and that’s nothing to be proud of. It’s second only to retard on the list of most offensive disability-related terms in the UK.

And that’s because it became a term of abuse, explicitly linked to cerebral palsy. In fact, when the British children’s TV show Blue Peter ran a campaign of awareness with what was then called The Spastics Society (since renamed Scope), focusing on a man called Joey Deacon, even his first name became an easy insult for British schoolyards up and down the country. Forgot your packed lunch? Durr, Joey! (etc etc)

The American use of the word is far less clearly linked in this way, and it has become a very mild term indeed, meaning, as I understand it, anything from clumsy to a bit stupid. But if you tell a British friend that your mum had a total spaz-attack at you for breaking curfew, they’ll probably take it far more seriously than you mean it.

And if they happen to feel particular empathy with anyone who has cerebral palsy, well, who knows, they might just throw a wobbly. Be warned!

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Filed Under: Fraser's Phrases
By Fraser McAlpine