gender English language and words in the news

It’s political correctness gone mad (Part 1 of 2)

In his popular post on pronouns, Stan Carey mentions an experiment in gender-free language in a Swedish school, and asks whether this is a positive idea or ‘an exercise in political correctness’. Political correctness and the related adjective politically correct are good examples of words that have undergone ‘pejoration’: originally neutral or even positive terms, they have gradually taken on more negative connotations, to the point that they are now used only in order to criticize. Not only that, their range has broadened so that they are employed not only to characterise certain language usages but also – as we will see in Part 2 of this post – as an all-purpose explanation for just about anything the speaker disapproves of.

As the definition in the Macmillan Dictionary suggests, political correctness was originally a strategy for combating discrimination, and its focus was language. The rationale is that language and social attitudes are closely linked – and there is plenty of sociolinguistic evidence to support this idea. The unthinking use of negative terms when talking about people who belong to any kind of minority is bound to affect the way such people are viewed. But, the argument goes, if these negative terms become socially unacceptable and are replaced by more ‘inclusive’ language, then attitudes will change too. The goal, in other words, is not simply to avoid offending people (on the basis of their race, gender, sexuality or disability) but to change perceptions in society as a whole.

It is hard to see how any reasonable person could object to this, and it’s no surprise that the British National Corpus, most of whose texts come from the 1980s, includes sentences like:

Women like him too [Bill Clinton], and not just for his civil rights stand and political correctness.

Here, the writer clearly sees political correctness as a virtue. But as time goes on, we begin to hear about cases where (in some people’s opinion) the idea has ‘gone too far’, giving rise eventually to widespread hostility to the whole concept – and to the ‘pejoration’ of the term itself.

At the end of the 1990s, the city council in Birmingham (England, not Alabama) organised a series of concerts, shows, and other public events around the Christmas period, and called the whole thing ‘Winterval’ (a blend of winter and festival). This was interpreted by some critics as an exaggerated attempt to avoid offending people from non-Christian faiths, and the mayor was accused of ‘declaring war on Christmas’. Things weren’t really as simple as that (the mayor pointed out there was a banner saying ‘Merry Christmas’ on the City Hall, and Christmas trees in several public squares), but this became one of many situations branded as ‘political correctness gone mad’. Another was the apocryphal story that a children’s pantomime had been renamed ‘Snow White and the Seven Vertically Challenged Males’, on the grounds that the traditional name (‘the Seven Dwarfs’) was insulting to people of lower than average height.

In Part 2 of this post, we’ll see how the backlash to political correctness gave rise first to satire and then to outright hostility, as the term was hijacked by particular interest groups.

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Michael Rundell

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