“Why is everyone so PC? It’s not my fault if you take offence” – Cheeky rap duo Rizzle Kicks don’t think that a linguistic rapport with political correctness has a place in our everyday language use. So why is it that so much lexis is prescribed by minority groups in order to minimise so-called ‘hurt feelings’ or derogation?
Political correctness and its relationship with taboo language – defined by the OED (2014) as ‘A total or partial prohibition of the use of certain words, expressions, topics, etc., esp. in social intercourse’ – has been a topic of debate amongst educators, scholars and journalists alike for the past few decades. Take Closer magazine, for example: their 2013 article ‘The Funniest Examples of Political Correctness Gone Mad’ gives examples of language altered because of its potential offence to minority groups. The author, Anais Rach, gives examples as extreme as a Seattle school’s use of the term ‘spring spheres’ to refer to the April’s annual seasonal treat – Easter Eggs! ‘Spring spheres’ is, according to the author, a more faith-neutral term that can be used by any child, regardless of faith. Now, for a start, Easter Eggs don’t, by means of shape or characteristic, resemble spheres. They resemble eggs. Secondly, it makes perfect sense to argue that Easter Eggs shouldn’t technically be consumed or referred to by those who don’t associate themselves with Christianity – the religion that the holiday and celebrations derive from. Surely non-Christians can’t complain about a faith-specific notion that stems from a Christian belief? Do ‘spring spheres’ really represent resurrection?
It is, however, fair to say that language alterations such as this have been journalistically sensationalised in their reports of political correctness (as reported by Crystal, 2012: 90). It is undoubtedly a ‘hot topic’ with two strong, opposing sides to the debate -the somewhat ridiculousness of ‘spring spheres’, compared to a disabled person’s perspective of the insults given through use of derogatory terms. Rose (2004) writes that the terms we use to refer to those with disability range from the patronising and condescending – like ‘special’ or ‘different’ – to the downright insulting, outdated and culturally shunned, like ‘retard’ or ‘window-licker’. Whitley & Kite (2009: 511) highlight the current disability-friendly PC term – ‘people with disabilities’. ‘People-first language’, as Rose (2004) points out, links to language’s relationship with thought: “It’s born of a belief that we’re people first.” When we utter the word ‘people’ before ‘disabilities’, it is believed that our thought process does the same, without pre-defining a person as ‘disabled’.
As we can see, political correctness is a radical concept that coincides with social change (Fairclough, 2001: 17). As the world around us changes, certain language becomes unacceptable when used to refer to a social group or action. This leaves us with a ‘taboo’ – i.e. a lexical item that, due to a pejorative association with minority groups, is deemed inappropriate for use in modern-day contexts. The rapidity of social change explains why we hear older speakers still using outdated, ‘tabooed’ terms. My old piano teacher was in his eighties and regularly used the term ‘blackies’ to refer to the keyboard’s black keys (when comparing said keys to people). Whilst most modern language users would deem this entirely unacceptable, it is also easy to spring to Mr Flower’s defence – in his lifetime, immigration rates shot to an all-time high, social activists in the 60s finally secured African-American rights and the USA voted in their first black President. Mr Flower’s childhood piano teacher could have uttered ‘blackies’ a hundred times without any students batting an eyelid, but our changing society means that with every utterance we make, cautiousness and the prospect of offence makes us more and more likely to hold our tongue.
It is clear that political correctness has its place in this modern world. It is also clear, however, that it is almost entirely determined by social change. Whatever euphemisms we use, the language we use remains as arbitrary – we’re still referring to the same entities, even if we are ‘softening the blow’. Where will political correctness take us next? Maybe ‘spring spheres’ are on their way out – we could, after all, be deeply offending ‘sfairesphobics’ (those with a fear of spheres)!
HELEN SMITH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK