gender English language and words in the news

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

Though coined in the 1930s, the expression political correctness came of age during the Eighties, initially – as we saw in Part 1 – as a neutral or even positive term. Nowadays, it is an all-purpose term of disparagement, and its application goes far beyond the realm of language, which was its original focus. For some stunning examples of its current use, I can recommend the website of the so-called ‘Association of British Drivers’, a fanatically pro-car organization which interprets any move to reduce car dependency (such as introducing bike and bus lanes) as evidence of ‘political correctness’. Here are a few gems from their website:

Speed limits should be ‘based on road safety principles, not political correctness’
Bus lanes are usually ‘imposed’ in cities because this is ‘perceived as the politically correct thing to do’
Concern with the environment ‘is simply the latest form of political correctness’

And so on, and on. For good measure, the Association’s list of favoured  ‘Links’ includes several websites devoted to attacking ‘political correctness’. The meaning of the expression has clearly broadened to the point where some people  explain almost anything they disapprove of as a symptom of political correctness.

How did we get to this point? Long before ‘PC’ became a target for outright hostility, it was often the object of ridicule. For example, the way we refer to someone with a physical disability has changed several times in the last 30 years or so: first, the highly offensive crippled gave way to handicapped, but then that was also seen as offensive (it appears to equate disability with incapacity), so the preferred adjective became disabled. But disabled is not without its critics, who dislike its focus on what a person can’t do rather than what they can. This has led to newer expressions such as physically challenged and differently abled. It’s an example of what linguist Stephen Pinker has called the ‘euphemism treadmill‘, and not surprisingly, these constant changes in ‘politically correct’ terms have attracted a certain amount of mockery. As the entry in the Macmillan Dictionary shows, challenged is often used in humorous combinations to refer to people who are short (‘vertically challenged’), bald (‘follically challenged’), old (chronologically), badly-dressed (sartorially), or with bad teeth (dentally). And our corpus includes numerous other examples, like these:

I didn’t think of myself as fat – just a bit horizontally challenged perhaps
He’s not dead… he’s electroencephalographically challenged.
George the Fourth, and Caroline of Brunswick, his hygienically challenged, and even more disreputable wife…

Most of this is good-natured, and in fairness, there are cases where the goal of avoiding offence at all costs can have absurd consequences. This definition of the word crone (not from the Macmillan Dictionary) leaves us in no doubt that it’s not a good thing to call someone, but fails to explain what the word actually means:

an offensive term that deliberately insults a woman’s age, appearance, and temperament (offensive)

This degree of circumlocution provides ammunition for those who like to portray a commitment to non-sexist language as a form of censorship. It’s what they call ‘political correctness gone mad’, and it’s interesting to note that while use of the term political correctness appears to be declining, the variation with gone mad is, if anything, becoming more frequent. The British tabloids regularly report some new outrage, like this one:

THE BEATLES are the latest victims of politically correct censors. The PC brigade have decided the Fab Four’s 1967 track When I’m Sixty-Four could offend Jehovah’s Witnesses. And the reason? The song mentions birthdays, which Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate.

Stories like this are usually based on the flimsiest of evidence, and seem to exist mainly as an excuse for a ‘what’s the world coming to?’ moan – the use of brigade here is typical of this kind of discourse (we have over 50 citations in our corpus for ‘the PC brigade’). The term political correctness initially described a use of language which took care not to cause needless offence, and has now been appropriated by a fairly narrow group who apply it indiscriminately to whatever they dislike about the world.

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Michael Rundell


  • Political correctness is cowardice. People lack the courage — and I would even say lack the ability at this point — to effect mature analyses and respond appropriately. They focus on minutiae while the big picture totally escapes them. Jehovah’s Witnesses are not offended by the word “birthday” being mentioned in a song. We have bigger fish to fry.

  • You make a good point, Carolyn. I think this happens quite often: a certain type of person, with the best intentions, makes a judgment on behalf of a group which they believe will be offended by something – but without taking the trouble to ask the group in question. As you imply, no sensible person could be offended by the word ‘birthday’, but the whole thing is then blown up by the press into a rant about the ‘language police’!

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