This concerns words that have one meaning in one country and an entirely different or less fraught meaning in another, the word that made me think about these things was the word spastic.
The word spastic is used differently depending on location which has led to some controversy and misunderstanding. The term generally originates from spasticity, a medical condition characterised by hypertonia, or a high degree of muscle tightness. Spasticity underlies spastic diplegia and many other forms of cerebral palsy. But the word in common speech can also be used in a pejorative context. The level of severity depends on whether one understands it as it is used in the United States or the United Kingdom . In the UK it can be considered an offensive way to refer to the disabled, while in the US it is more closely associated with hyperactivity or clumsiness and carries few offensive connotations.
In a forum I read someone commented on a customer that had a ‘spaz’ attack, in Australia as in England calling someone a ‘spaz’ is considered to be offensive, because it is a slang term for the word spastic.
Spastic was a medical term used in the past to describe someone who had certain physical disabilties, unfortunately now it has acquired an offensive meaning, and is more often than not used as insult.
“Gee, you’re such a spastic”
“Dude, you dance like a spaz, it’s so funny”
This also applies to the word ‘tard which is short for retarded, another medical term from the past to describe someone who had certain mental limitations, and has recently hijacked by popular culture to describe anything or anyone that the person doesn’t like.
“He’s such a ‘tard, no wonder people avoid him”
“Did you see that dress, she looks like a real ‘tard”
I try to be aware of cross cultural meanings, like the word fanny, in America it’s another word for the bum, bottom, buttocks, etc etc. In Australia and the UK fanny is a slang term for the female genital area, so the useage of the term fanny pack had me in stitches, also the theme song from The Nanny, which always gave me lovely mental images (yes, I am five).
I try to steer clear of using pejoratives that have been ambushed in this manner, words like moron, spastic and retard, if you feel you must insult someone use a word with style and flair, bone up on your Shakespeare, he had some brilliant insults you can use.