Political Correctness

© Copyright Peter Crawford 2013


Political correctness is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behaviour seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts.

Early Usage

 J. Wilson
Early usages of the phrase "politically correct" have been found in various contexts, which may not relate to the current terminology.
Examples of the term can be found as early as the 18th century.
The previous meaning was 'in line with prevailing political thought or policy'.
The term previously used 'correctness' in its literal sense and without any particular reference to language that might be considered offensive or discriminatory.
For example, J. Wilson's comments in U.S. Republic, 1793:
'The states, rather than the people, for whose sake the states exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention... Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language... ‘The United States,’ instead of the ‘People of the United States,’ is the toast given. This is not politically correct.'

Toni Cade Bambara
Rhetoric of the '
New Left'

By 1970, New Left proponents had adopted the term political correctness.
In the essay 'The Black Woman', Toni Cade Bambara says: ". . . a man cannot be politically correct and a male chauvinist too."

Current usage

Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when it was adopted as a pejorative term by the political right in the 1990.
Writing in the New York Times in 1990, Richard Bernstein noted "The term 'politically correct,' with its suggestion of 'Stalinist orthodoxy', is spoken more with irony and disapproval than with reverence.
Within a few years, this previously obscure term featured regularly in the lexicon of the conservative social and political challenges against curriculum expansion and progressive teaching methods in schools and universities.
U.S. President George H. W. Bush
In 1991, in America, addressing a graduating class of the University of Michigan, U.S. President George H. W. Bush spoke against "a movement that would declare certain topics 'off-limits,' certain expressions 'off-limits', even certain gestures 'off-limits'" in allusion to liberal Political Correctness.
The most common usage here is as a pejorative term to refer to excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations.
The central uses of the term relate to particular issues of race, gender, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, culture and world-views  and encompass both the language in which issues are discussed and the viewpoints that are expressed.
Proponents of the view that differences in IQ test scores between blacks and whites are (primarily or largely) genetically determined state that criticism of these views is based on political correctness.
Examples of language commonly referred to as "politically correct" include:
"Intellectually disabled" in place of "Retarded" and other terms
"African American" in place of "Black," "Negro" and other terms
"Native American" (United States)/"First Nations" (Canada) in place of "Indian"
"Gender-neutral" terms such as "fire-fighter" in place of "fireman," police officer in place of policeman.

 'The Abolition of Britain' - Peter Hitchens 
Peter Hitchens
Terms relating to lack of various common human abilities, such as "visually impaired" or "hearing impaired" in place of "blind" or "deaf"
"Holiday", "winter" or "festive" in place of "Christmas"
In a more general sense, any policy regarded by the speaker as representing an imposed orthodoxy may be criticized as "politically correct."
In 'The Abolition of Britain', Peter Hitchens says: “the casual phrase . . . ‘political correctness’ is the most intolerant system of thought to dominate the British Isles since the Reformation”.


A common criticism is that terms chosen by an identity group, as acceptable descriptors of themselves, then pass into common usage, including usage by the racists and sexists whose racism and sexism, et cetera, the new terms mean to supersede.
Alternately put, the new terms gradually acquire the same disparaging connotations of the old terms.
The new terms are thus devalued, and another set of words must be coined, giving rise to lengthy progressions such as Negro, Colored, Black, Afro-American, African-American, and so on, (cf. Euphemism treadmill).

Euphemism Treadmill

Euphemisms often evolve over time into taboo words themselves, through a process dubbed the "euphemism treadmill".
This is the well-known linguistic process known as 'pejoration' or semantic change.
Words originally intended as euphemisms may lose their euphemistic value, acquiring the negative connotations of their referents.

George Orwell
In some cases, they may be used mockingly and become dysphemisms.
Euphemisms related to disabilities have been prone to this (see below).
In his remarks on the ever-changing London slang, made in 'Down and Out in Paris and London', George Orwell mentioned both the euphemism treadmill and the dysphemism treadmill.
He did not use these now-established terms, but observed and commented on the respective processes as early as in 1933.
'Toilet' is itself an 18th century euphemism, replacing the older euphemism 'House-of-Office', which in turn replaced the even older euphemisms 'privy-house' or 'bog-house'.
In the 20th century, where the words 'lavatory' or 'toilet' were deemed inappropriate, they were sometimes replaced with 'bathroom' or 'water closet', which in turn became simply 'restroom' or 'W.C.'

Disability and Handicap

Connotations easily change over time.
'Idiot', 'imbecile', and 'moron' were once neutral terms for a developmentally delayed adult with the mental age comparable to a toddler, preschooler, and primary school child, respectively.
In time negative connotations tend to crowd out neutral ones, so the phrase 'mentally retarded' was pressed into service to replace them.
'Mentally retarded', too, has come to be considered inappropriate by some, because the word 'retarded' came to be commonly used as an insult of a person, thing, or idea.
As a result, new terms like 'mentally challenged', with an 'intellectual disability', 'learning difficultie's and 'special needs' have sometimes replaced the term 'retarded'.
A similar progression occurred with the following terms for persons with physical handicaps being adopted by some people:
lame / crippled → spastic → handicapped → disabled → physically challenged → differently abled →
People with Disabilities
Euphemisms can also serve to recirculate words that have passed out of use because of negative connotation.
The word 'lame' from above, having faded from the vernacular, was revitalized as a slang word generally meaning "not living up to expectations" or "boring."
The connotation of a euphemism can also be subject-specific.
Bill Veeck
In the early 1960s, Major League Baseball franchise owner and promoter Bill Veeck, who was missing part of a leg, argued against the then-favored euphemism 'handicapped', saying he preferred 'crippled' because it was merely descriptive and did not carry connotations of limiting one's capability the way 'handicapped' (and all of its subsequent euphemisms) seemed to do.
It has also been contended that, as the name of a condition became more complicated and seemingly arcane, sufferers of this condition have been taken less seriously as people with a serious illness, and were given poorer treatment as a result.
It has also been contended that Vietnam veterans would have received the proper care and attention they needed were the condition still called 'shell shock'.
It has also been pointed out that 'crippled' was a perfectly valid term (and noted that early English translations of the Bible seemed to have no qualms about saying that Jesus "healed the cripples").
Similarly, 'spastic' is a formal medical term to describe muscular hypertonicity due to upper motor neuron dysfunction; however, vernacular use of 'spastic' (and variants such as 'spaz' and 'spacker') as an insult in Britain and Australia led to the term being regarded by some as offensive.
Tiger Woods
While the term was developing into an insult in British English, it was evolving in a radically different fashion in American English.
In the U.S., 'spastic' or 'spaz' became a synonym for clumsiness, whether physical or mental, and 'nerdiness', and is very often used in a self-deprecating manner.
The difference between the British and American connotations of 'spastic' was starkly shown in 2006 when golfer Tiger Woods used 'spaz' to describe his putting in that year's Masters.
The remark went completely unnoticed in America, but caused a major uproar in the UK.

Racism and Sexism

Racism and sexism are also common sources of profanity, and one of the few categories producing new profanities.
Guy Gibson's Dog Nigger - 1950s Film
One example is 'bitch', a slur often used for women, while 'nigger', a slur for black people, was not considered a profanity at all as recently as the 1950s.

Such profanities are often re-appropriated by the group targeted and marginalized, and used as a way of reversing the negative stigma associated with the word.
For example, some African-Americans will often call each other 'nigga'.

A case in point is the dog belonging to Guy Gibson, the leader of the bombing raid on the Ruhr Dams during the Second World War.
The dog was a dark chocolate Labrador called Nigger.
As Stephen Fry - (who was involved in changing the dog's name from 'Nigger' to 'Digger' in the remake of the 'Dambusters') wrote,
'You can go to RAF Scampton and see the dog's grave, and there he is with his name, and it's an important part of the famous 1950s film of the raid.
The real Guy Gibson and the real Nigger
The name of the dog was a code word to show that the dam had been successfully breached.
In the film, you're constantly hearing 'Nigger, Niger, Niger, hurray' and Barnes Wallis is punching the air. But obviously that's not going to happen now.'
However, when Fry wrote this short account he pathetically substituted the 'N-word' for Nigger.
Apparently Fry has no problems with publicly saying or writing 'Fuck' (without abreviating it to the 'F-word'), but like a good, flabby, middle-class nerd, cannot bring himself to write or say 'Nigger'.
Fry would obviously appear to condemn the politics of INGSOC, and yet he is quite happy to destroy history, just like Winston Smith.

'Ten Little Niggers'
Nigger is a noun in the English language.
The word originated as a neutral term referring to black people, as a variation of the Spanish/Portuguese noun negro, a descendant of the Latin adjective niger ("color black").
As recently as the 1950s, it was acceptable British usage to say 'niggers' when referring to black people, - notable mainstream usages include 'Nigger Boy' brand candy cigarettes, and the colour 'nigger brown' or simply 'nigger' (dark brown).

Further the term 'Oriental' is now considered offensive but, unlike every single other word here, no euphemism has been found to replace it.
As such the term 'Asian' is often used in place of 'Oriental', however this could also apply to people from India and Iran.


INGSOC - 'Doublethink' 
Doublespeak is language that deliberately disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words and is an essential part of political correctness.
Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms (e.g., "downsizing" for layoffs, "servicing the target" for bombing, making the truth less unpleasant, without denying its nature.

George Orwell's - 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'
It may also be deployed as intentional ambiguity, or reversal of meaning (for example, naming a state of war "peace").
In such cases, doublespeak disguises the nature of the truth, producing a communication bypass.
There is no explicit mention on where doublespeak's primary concepts came from, however, doublespeak might possibly have certain concepts taken from George Orwell's book, 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.
Although there is no mention of 'Doublespeak' in 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', it has been argued that the term is a combination of two concepts - 'Doublethink' and 'Newspeak' which are original to his work.
Comparisons have been made between 'Doublespeak' and Orwell's descriptions on political speech from his essays Politics and the English Language in which "unscrupulous politicians, advertisers, religionists, and other double-speakers of whatever stripe continue to abuse language for manipulative purposes".