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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

politically correct

(late 1980’s | activese | “oversensitive,” “squeamish,” “bending over backwards”)

Lovely Liz from Queens told me she first heard this term in the late 1970’s from a lesbian friend of hers. Based on LexisNexis, I would say that the preponderance of the evidence — not that there’s much of it — does point to a feminist origin of “politically correct” used to mean “excessively respectful of others’ sensibilities” or “restricting free expression.” It’s an example of a term that formerly had a specialized meaning and saw infrequent use, but now is ubiquitous (like “template” or “hurtful”). “Politically correct” once meant “following the dictates of the regime” or “parroting the goals and vocabulary of the regime,” and it was normally used in Communist countries, where it could be a necessity in order to stay alive. It had an official odor about it, and the customary stiff and bureaucratic tone of English versions of Stalinist shibboleths.

It had another use in American political writing, where it served as a synonym for “politically astute.” In that context, it often implied a certain deviousness. Here are two examples: “[Jerry Brown] has demonstrated an uncanny ability to place himself on the ‘politically correct’ side of explosive questions” (U.S. News and World Report, January 14, 1980); and “[Senator John] Glenn’s strategists have concluded that the politically correct answer is that the former astronaut is neither a Reagan Republican nor a Democrat in the mold of former vice president Walter F. Mondale” (Washington Post, November 21, 1983). I found a number of similar examples in early eighties journalism. This usage seems unlikely to re-emerge now that the language has been swamped by the “PC” revolution, in which this phrase, and its opposite, “politically incorrect,” have taken an entirely new political coloring.

At first I didn’t believe that our current use of this term arose from the left rather than the right, but it does seem to be true. Leftists being the incurable ironists that they are, they used the term to bemoan the kind of orthodoxy that compelled good feminists and sensitive new age guys to follow certain rules — like don’t wear make-up or don’t point out weaknesses in the case for slavery reparations. In the beginning, the phrase had rather a rueful tone, an acknowledgment that such restraint was necessary for the good of the cause but irksome all the same. How quickly such innocent resignation turned into a mighty bludgeon for right-wing stalwarts, delighted to have a phrase that so quickly and contemptuously disposed of any and all concern for minority rights (always excepting the right of the very rich to run the country for their own benefit, of course).

When the “political correctness” grenade became the weapon of choice around 1990, it was most predictably directed at “speech codes” on college campuses, by which certain words and political positions were enjoined. Some codes did go too far, but mostly this was about making punishable the use of insulting names (“nigger,” “kike,” “bitch,” “faggot”) or characterizations of large groups (“black people don’t want to work,” “all women are nags and nutcutters,” “Jews are part of a cabal bent on taking over the world”) that have zero scientific basis. Such restrictions made perfect sense then and still do. If you are trying to expand your talent pool to include everyone who wasn’t allowed to compete with white men in the good old days, you can’t expect them to tolerate public insults that are based on nothing but hatred and ignorance. Indeed, such ugly names have replaced “fuck” and “shit” as forbidden words in our language. (It always seemed to me that most detractors of PC simply wanted to return to the days when it was o.k. to use such language in public and in print, but maybe I misjudged their motives.)

In many ways, the new use of “politically correct” is similar to the old, but with one crucial difference. In Soviet Russia, “politically correct” meant you were going along with the majority. In today’s America, it means you are trying to protect (or at least respect) minorities, even if the majority (composed of alliances of other minorities) doesn’t really care. The fact that the term is almost invariably used with disdain may reflect disgust with its totalitarian roots, or it may just mean that most right-wingers prefer to keep minorities in their place. When freedom of speech devolves into license to be a jerk without suffering any consequences, and respectful attention to others’ scruples becomes mealy-mouthed piety, it’s inevitable that a term like “politically correct” will reflect the debasement of our public discourse.

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