‘Taboo or not taboo? That is the question!’ ROSIE BROWN considers the importance of choosing our words carefully

Political correctness is like a man with many faces, whatever light he is portrayed in whether positive or negative, he shines. Or maybe political correctness is like a woman with many faces? Maybe it’s the many faces of a Caucasian woman who is vertically challenged or maybe the faces of an Afro-Caribbean woman who is a domestic engineer? 

Does it matter?

It is important to understand the roots and initial intentions of political correctness which lie in the ideology of Marxism. As Trueman (2000) notes, by changing aspects of our culture to create a ‘social revolution’, this will destroy the stereotypical dominant role of the white male resulting in more opportunities and equality for women and other minority groups, ultimately having a positive impact on society. But is this still the same today?
Society today believes that political correctness is the motion of censoring words that we perceive as offensive or demeaning, or ‘taboo’ language. As Hughes (2010:4) discusses, by ‘disguising’ or ‘avoiding’ certain taboo words we only use language that is appropriate, acceptable and respectful to our society. In contrast to this, Gallagher (2013) suggests that if we insist on self-censoring or substituting any conversation relating to race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or physical ability, then there is no hope in defeating the barriers we say we want to overcome. So how do we conquer these problems?

One method of disguising taboo words is through lexical substitution, replacing politically incorrect terms for ones that are more socially acceptable but as Andrews (1996:391) questions, does a linguistic response such as this really solve the extra linguistic problems in our society or help solve similar problems in the future?

Well, on one hand it does. As Allan & Burridge (2006:97) discuss, the substitution of the term ‘African-American’ for ‘black’ positively impacts this particular social group by making explicit the roots of their heritage. This creates an individual identity rather than stereotyping and categorising those by skin colour.

On the other hand, Spencer (1994:559) conflicts this idea and notes that these movements generate a ‘common political mood of victimization, moral indignation and a self righteous hostility against the common enemy – the white males’.  Spencer (1994:559) also discusses that political correctness produces a moral drama between the oppressed and the oppressor whereby the oppressed demand recognition of their suffering. This is evident by ‘National Sorry Day’ held in Australia whereby the nationals apologise for the past treatment of Aboriginal people, Allan & Burridge (2006:106). As a result of this acknowledgement, this portrays the white male as an ‘enemy’ and ‘oppressor’ which ultimately categorises and labels this group negatively. Surely by doing this it reverses the roles and discriminates against white males for the actions of their ancestors in the past, thus making them a minority group?

So it is apparent that political correctness is hard to define and complicated in the way it should be handled. But is it really making the positive impact on society that it once set out to achieve or is it just targeting present day social groups for events that occurred in the past? As Andrews (1996:402) notes the multifaceted problems associated with political correctness show the dynamic interplay of linguistic signs as they act and react within the constantly changing social context.

ROSIE BROWN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Allan, K & Burridge, K. (2006) Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Andrews, E. (1996)American Speech.  Cultural Sensitivity and Political Correctness: The Linguistic Problem of Naming [online], Winter, 71 (4), [Accessed on 25 November 2013], pp. 389-404. Available at:http://www.jstor.org/stable/455713?seq=4&Search=yes&searchText=political&searchText=correctness&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dpolitical%2Bcorrectness%26amp%3Bacc%3Don%26amp%3Bwc%3Don%26amp%3Bfc%3Doff&prevSearch=&resultsServiceName=null

Gallagher, B. (2013) [Accessed 25 November 2013]. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bj-gallagher/the-problem-political-correctness_b_2746663.html

Hughes, G. (2010) Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture. Wiley-Blackwell.

Spencer, M. (1994) Sociological Forum. Multiculturalism, “Political Correctness,” and the Politics of Identity [online], December 1994, 9 (4), [Accessed on 25 November 2013], pp. 547-567. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/685001?seq=16&Search=yes&searchText=political&searchText=correctness&list=hide&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dpolitical%2Bcorrectness%26amp%3Bacc%3Don%26amp%3Bwc%3Don%26amp%3Bfc%3Doff&prevSearch=&resultsServiceName=null

Trueman, S. (2000) [Accessed 25 November 2013]. Available at: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/karl_marx.htm


One thought on “‘Taboo or not taboo? That is the question!’ ROSIE BROWN considers the importance of choosing our words carefully

  1. Amy Kerfoot says:


    I found your blog really interesting and I completely agree with you when you say that political correctness is hard to define. As you pointed out, political correctness was never intentionally made to insult anybody; ironically it was made for the opposite. However, it seems that the more we try not to insult people, the more we do.
    I do believe the intentions behind political correctness mean well. Ideally, we would believe that more equality for minority groups, such as women, would mean more opportunities and ultimately a ‘better’ society. However, equality does not always mean ‘better.’ Actions were taken not so long ago to ensure that women were paying the same as men for their car insurance, as it was deemed unfair. This caused outrage with some women as they had to pay more for their car insurance. My point being, someone will always be offended or unhappy with any change in society.
    In terms of substituting language, I would say that most people instinctively use lexical substitution when talking about possible offensive subjects. However, in response to Andrews’ question, I do not believe it will solve any linguistic problems. Nonetheless, by substituting the word ‘tramp’ for ‘homeless’ for example, we are removing negative connotations which could cause unnecessary offense and distress. Fundamentally, it is being being polite on a basic level.
    I agree with your comment concerning the ‘National Sorry Day’ held in Australia. It is important to remember the terrible things that have happened in history. However it is making out, like you stated, that the white male is the enemy, meaning that white males today are still being labelled as a result of past events.
    I do believe that political correctness could be advantageous if it was just about choosing our words carefully in the hope we do not offend. However, it has gone too far in some instances. Nowadays, anything we say could be made out to be offensive by somebody. Does this mean our freedom of speech should be taken away? Is it even possible to control society, speech and even thoughts? I do not believe we will ever come to a conclusion that everyone is happy with.

    AMY KERFOOT, English Language Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

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