November 22, 2017


being politically correct (20th century)

Political correctness has been with us longer than its current vogue might lead us to think. The phrase politically correct turns up in the US Supreme Court as early as 1793, though not with reference to language. Politically incorrect is much more recent: the first recorded usage in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1933. And the abbreviation PC is the most recent of all: 1986. PC began its life with many positive associations. Today, when someone says that a word is PC, the connotations are almost always negative. What happened?

Political correctness is a linguistic movement which went out of control. Its supporters started out with the best of intentions, drawing attention to the way language can perpetuate undesirable social discrimination in such areas as race, gender, occupation and personal development. Feminists, for example, pointed to the way masculine words, idioms and word-endings reinforced a world-view in which women were ignored or played a secondary role (as seen in all men are created equal, the man in the street, fireman, chairman). The ‘innocent’ historical use of these expressions, they argued, was no guide. The goal had to be an inclusive language, which would avoid bias and give no offence.

In some cases, the solution was easy. It wasn’t linguistically difficult to change fireman to firefighter or all men to all people. Other changes required more ingenuity (air steward(ess) to flight attendant), and in some cases (such as man in the street) the language provided no idiomatic equivalent at all. Some changes (such as chairman to chairwoman, chairperson or chair) proved controversial, on both sides of the gender divide, and some proposed replacements were disliked because of their awkwardness (such as using he or she for he). Many argued that the alternatives often did nothing to remove any prejudice there might be about the condition: what was the advantage of persons with disabilities over the disabled? The negative associations simply transferred to the new term, as seen with the search for a PC expression to describe people who are handicapped/disabled/physically challenged/differently abled … or people who are black/negro/coloured/Afro-American/African-American … And what was the point of changing a label if social conditions didn’t change?

Problems grew when some PC activists took their linguistic case too far. Opposition to the word black in a racial context was one thing. Reading in racial prejudice behind all uses of the word black (as in blackboards and black sheep) was another. Stories circulated of authorities falling over backwards to avoid a word in case someone found it offensive.

Some of the stories were true; some were myths reported by the media. It became difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. How many nursery school teachers heard the story that it was wrong to sing the nursery rhyme ‘Baa baa black sheep’, and that some other colour-word should be used instead? It probably started out as an urban myth (the ‘rainbow sheep myth’), but I know teachers who have indeed changed the words, worried in case the parents of the one black child in their class might complain.

Fact or fiction, the political right focused on such stories as a means of discrediting the progressives who were trying to get a better deal for disadvantaged groups. Politicians always exaggerate the perceived weaknesses of the other side, and in the case of PC, numerous accusations were made about how excessive deference was being given to some groups at the expense of others. Insults flew. Those who drew attention to ‘incorrect vocabulary’ were charged with being ‘thought police’. Moderate reformers found themselves grouped along with extremists.

Today, few people would describe themselves as being PC. Rather they admit, rather self-consciously but with a certain pride, to being ‘non-PC’. They say such things as ‘I know this is politically incorrect, but …’ and then they say what they have in mind. The PC movement has evidently had an effect, in that it has made them more conscious of the issues than they were before. But some disadvantaged groups might well be wondering what all the fuss has been about, for their situation hasn’t changed a jot.

David Crystal

The Story of English in 100 Words

Завтра постараюсь перевести, если время будет, а вы почитайте, пожалуйста, пока (кому не трудно).

Дэвид Кристал очень объективно пишет про понятие политической корректности в английском языке.