Home » BRAVE Learning » 3 reasons why I hate Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” (and 3 videos to watch instead)

3 reasons why I hate Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” (and 3 videos to watch instead)

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Weird Al Yankovic is here to educate you in the proper use of language. Well, actually, he’s here to sell you his record, but his “Blurred Lines” parody focuses on English and its improper use. My linguistically-minded friends love it. My English teaching friends love it.
I hate it. Here’s why – and here’s what I suggest language lovers can watch instead.

Reason One: Four Prescriptive Minutes

“If you can’t write in a proper way…” – this is how the song begins and this is how it will continue. Weird Al is defending what is proper, correct and governed by rules. He is here to ridicule those who stray away from the linguistic order – to mock the people whose language is aberrant and abnormal.
Good job, Weird Al. If the song was longer, you’d perhaps find time to mention that rules change and evolve – that usage is just as powerful in creating norms as dictionaries – and that English no longer belongs to those who write, spell and pronounce it “properly.”
But the song wouldn’t be so short, punchy and hilarious then.
Which leads me to my next point…

Reason Two: I Ain’t Learnin’ Nuthin’

Three minutes and forty-six seconds of pointing a prescriptive finger, listing various “word crimes” and mocking them in turn. Sure, the video is well-designed and would be fun to use in class, I guess – but then what?
You’d have to do some research on dangling participles and the Oxford comma.
You’d have to hit the dictionary for those spellings, meanings and variants.
The song and the clip does not teach you anything – just like the legendary “WROOOONG, DO IT AGAIN!” cry of Pink Floyd’s horrible “certain teachers” failed to teach in the end. It moves too fast to convey anything in a meaningful way – other than saying “this is wrong, this is wrong, and this is just silly.”
Of course – you can use this clip as inspiration for your learners, and probably this would work short-term. But if your inspiration for being “proper” and achieving accuracy is a white dude mocking you on YouTube, then two things drive you really: either you fear being mocked yourself, or you want to learn better so you can go on mocking others. I see very little middle ground here – again, the song is too short to include it.
Speaking of mockery –

Reason Three: Weird Al Yankovic uses the word “spastic”

I don’t care that it’s not that offensive in the US of A. I don’t care that the original version of this song was even more offensive than this. I don’t care that “this is only a joke” – the rape allusions in Thicke’s original were apparently meant as a joke too.
Weird Al Yankovic compares grammar and spelling mistakes to “writing like a spastic” in his short, funny video called “Word Crimes.”
That is all.

Three videos you can watch instead of “Word Crimes”

Watch Maysoon Zayid. She is what Weird Al would describe as “spastic.” She is also funny, inspiring and original.
Watch Jamila Lyiscott. She is a poet and an educator, and will teach you more about how language actually works.
Watch Stephen Fry. He is an actor, comedian, writer and a lover of languages: he is also here to tell you what’s wrong about Weird Al’s attitude.

Let me have it.

I’m not going to apologize for hating “Word Crimes” with a passion – but I’m ready to talk about it if you are 🙂
Let me know what you think in the comments.

(Photo Credit: @pysproblem81 / ELTpics)


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10 Responsesso far.

  1. John Addis says:

    But… it really ISN’T offensive in US English. At all. Not even a tiny bit. I had never heard there was some UK-based offensive version of the word until today. I mean, it doesn’t even mean the same thing in US English — it wouldn’t even make sense in context if it meant cerebral palsy. I mean, if a UK person said “I think schoolchildren should use rubbers”, wouldn’t you think it was culturally shortsighted if an American assumed you meant condoms (since there is no US use of “rubber” as “eraser”), and then demanded YOU change YOUR word because it was offensive in the US?

  2. John –
    Isn’t English just amazing? So many words with so many meanings, some offensive, some normal. It would be a shame if someone insisted that only one of them would be the norm, and the other – an abberation…
    Oh, wait.
    (Seriously though, there were also a few “moron/moran” slurs and a request to remove offenders from gene pools in the lyrics – overall, an angry song no matter who you ask.)

  3. For my part, I’m still uncomfortable with the “spastic” line. I could handle “spaz”, but using this noun as a pejorative hits me the same way as derogatively labeling someone as “a retard”.

  4. Clay says:

    This is likely the most somber and stern commentary of a Weird Al song I’ll ever read. 🙂 While I may be prone to criticize a politician or media outlet for taking the lazy way out and relying on cheap sound bites to get ratings, I tend to be more forgiving of a pop artist. He rants irreverently, as is his wont, about foibles that appeal to listeners’ common pet peeves. Of course it’s over the top; that’s the nature of his art. You might not care for his brand of entertainment, but to expect him to give a balanced position recognizing the nuances of the way language evolves over time is setting expectations unreasonably high. We should set aside any pretense that one is expected to gain any form of education from the song.

    The offensive and/or un-PC nature of “spastic” was news to me. I hadn’t known that the term was specifically associated with cerebral palsy, so I learned something new today. To the best of my recollection, I haven’t used the lighthearted 80s insult “You’re such a spaz!” But if I had, I would have done so out of ignorance, with equal guilt (or equal innocence, as the case may be) as Al did himself in this context. To suggest that his usage in this context would also therefore translate to his using the term as a pejorative directed toward an actual person with CP (“She is what Weird Al would describe as ‘spastic.'”) is a bit of an unfair judgment in my view.

  5. Clay,
    Thanks for this – three things to add:

    1) I believe that a few of my English-teaching friends would seriously consider using “Word Crimes” as part of their lesson – and if they did, this would be education almost by default. I bet Weird Al didn’t specifically mean for this to happen, but this blog is about language learning and for language learners, so that’s the context I view it in.
    2) The comment I made about the cerebral palsy artist was not referring to Al’s intent to offend – it was just stating what he would probably call her, as the word means less to him as a US speaker.
    3) You would not believe the flak I’m picking up on several websites for daring to suggest some people might feel offended by this 🙂 I’m sure it’s a joke and a light-hearted thing. But as I said, I don’t care about what he meant as much as about how it turned out. And since I happen to care about languages, I thought I’d speak up.
    Thanks for talking about this.

  6. Quill2006 says:

    I have to disagree with the idea that “spastic” is not that offensive in the US. Not that offensive to whom? Americans without cerebral palsy? I immediately made the connection to an insult for someone with cerebral palsy, and I’m American and don’t have cerebral palsy. It makes a nice rhyme, but it’s still a terrible word to use. Lots of people don’t consider the word “retard” or “retarded” as bad language, but they’re disableist, considered extremely awful by most people in the disabled community, and really, when you stop to think about it, they’re all words that historically have been used to denigrate people with disabilities. So has moron, which was also included in the song. Shouldn’t thoughtful people try to encourage others to stop using these words? I love having all the words in the English language (and others!) to express myself, but that makes it easy to avoid words that are hurtful to others.

    I enjoyed the rest of the song as an entertaining, slightly off-color joke. It isn’t educational, but that isn’t really its purpose.

  7. Liz says:

    I don’t object to the word spastic as an adjective, but putting the word “a” in front if it personifies the word and makes it insulting to the CP community.

  8. Andrew says:

    You understand it’s not an educational song right? It’s humorous, its design isn’t to teach.

    I winced a little at the word “spastic” as well – but in his last 30+ year career his intention has rarely been to offend, so I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

  9. Hi Andrew,

    See below, my answer to Clay (part 1) – about the “not educational” context.

  10. Samantha says:

    I had absolutely no clue that spastic was an offensive term. And I’ve worked with neuro-atypical kids before. I guess I too learned something new.

    I think the satire in this song cuts both ways. There are, in fact, many people on the internet who are that persnickety and critical of others’ word usage. Therefore, I assumed that the song was intended to skewer both the grammatically challenged *and* the grammatically anal retentive.