What is, and how desirable is political correctness? VICKI TOON gets out her red pen…..

In recent years, political correctness (PC) has seen a massive rise in popularity, (if I am even allowed to call it that!) For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, the OED online defines it as the “advocacy of or conformity to politically correct views; politically correct language or behaviour” (2017). This seems a rather simplistic view, however, as the modern meaning of the term covers a whole range of connotations.

For many, PC has acted as an uplifting source of equality and relieves those who have fallen victim to insults because of race, gender, physical ability etc. For example, O’Neill (2011) points out that some years ago, ‘handicapped’ used to be the PC term to describe people with disabilities. This grew to have negative connotations and was replaced by a more modern PC term, ‘disabled’. ‘Disabled’ at present, causes less offence than ‘handicapped’ and most people see this as a good thing. But don’t use ‘disabled’ as the collective term, as in ‘the disabled’. It should be used as a description, not a label, as the Government website (Gov.uk) kindly points out for us. There is however, growing frustration around the word ‘disabled’, with some speculation that it is being replaced with new terms such as ‘differently abled’.

Supporters of PC are quick to point out that it has “a civilizing influence on society, that it discourages the use of words that have negative or offensive connotations and thereby grants respect to people who are the victims of unfair stereotypes” (O’Neill, 2011, p. 279). Naturally, it is in most people’s best interests to not purposefully offend someone or to cause them harm, but unfortunately in the past, some words have gained negative connotations and have become subject to O’Neill’s (2011) ‘euphemism treadmill’. This is a rather undeserved fate, and some words such as ‘spastic’, which was originally used in the medical sense to refer to someone with cerebral palsy, gradually grew to be used as an insult and is now seen as being politically incorrect.

You might be wondering, “a euphemism treadmill? Is this all just an elaborate metaphor?” Well the simple answer is ‘no’! O’Neill’s (2011) euphemism treadmill refers to the idea that, for example, ‘toilet’ used to be the PC term but was quickly replaced by other euphemisms such as ‘loo’, ‘W.C.’ and ‘lavatory’. O’Neill claims that we are constantly participating in this cycle of replacing words which is entirely pointless. Words themselves never have an inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ meaning. A word’s meaning often changes over time through use. So, for example, it is inappropriate to refer to someone with dwarfism as being a ‘midget’ or even a ‘dwarf’ (according to Gov.uk anyway!) The PC phrase would be to describe someone with dwarfism as someone “with restricted growth”, did you know that? No, neither did I.

It’s all very well explaining how words move from being PC to becoming politically incorrect, but where do we draw the line? When is it acceptable for us to be told what we can and can’t say, do and even think? Many sources have tried to prescribe what they think should and shouldn’t be used with varying degrees of success. With this, there are those who strongly oppose PC equating it with thought control. Browne (2006) points out that p.c. has managed to creep its way into several areas including hospitals, local as well as central Government and schools. My own recent experience within a primary school revealed that it is now seen as inappropriate to use red pen to mark a child’s piece of work because the colour red has negative connotations. Instead, a purple pen should be used. This to me, does seem to be PC gone mad because only a relatively short time ago, I was of primary school age and never thought of the colour red as having such connotations.

So, what does this mean for people? Ordinary people, who aren’t familiar with euphemism treadmills and constantly changing Government guidelines. Is it that bad? Well, ultimately it means that English speakers are discouraged to use language which is deemed offensive and insensitive to others, which can only be a positive thing to most rational minded people. Vague, I know. But this only reflects current definitions of those who are ‘experts’ in the field, and until someone comes up with a better, more concrete answer, then this is what we have to live by.

VICKI TOON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Browne, A. (2006). The retreat of reason: Political Correctness and the corruption of public debate in modern Britain (2nd Ed.). London, United Kingdom: The Institute for the Study of Civil Society.

Department for Work & Pensions & Department for Disability Issues. (2014). Inclusive language: Words to use and avoid when writing about disability. Gov.uk. 

OED Online. (2017). Oxford University Press. 

O’Neill, B. (2011). A Critique of Politically Correct Language. The Independent Review, 16(2), 279–291.



3 thoughts on “What is, and how desirable is political correctness? VICKI TOON gets out her red pen…..

  1. Megan says:

    This is a very well structured and interesting read Vicki. It creates many questions surrounding political correctness and its issues. Firstly I was unaware about the collective use of ‘disabled’ being a negative term, so thank you for bringing that to the surface. Reading on though, do you think that PC has gone too far if further terms are brought in? Such as ‘differently abled’? Personally I think things like this could confuse individuals further.
    I totally agree that words should not be used in order to cause offence or harm, but it is also difficult to keep up with what is accepted and what is not. It is also interesting that terms such as ‘spastic’, which you gave as an example, initially had no negative connotations but have unfortunately turned that way. Could this imply that this could happen to any word? I had never heard of the “euphemism treadmill” (O’Neil, 2011) but your explanation is very clear and grasps the concept well. It does prove difficult to keep up with all of the terms for one entity!
    I am very shocked reading your experience at the primary school. I agree that the connotations of a red pen being negative have no significance with me. To me, red pens were used to be clearer against our own peer marking! Do you know if this is common in schools? Or was this just an exception?
    I think there is a very fine line with PC. I found your blog very enlightening Vicki, thank you!

    O’Neill, B. (2011). A Critique of Politically Correct Language. The Independent Review, 16(2), 279–291.

    • Courtney Thomas says:

      I found your blog to be full of interesting ideas and concepts surrounding political correctness (PC) from well-established linguists and yourself. I found it accessible to read, giving a good overall outlook on PC.
      Some of the concepts you mentioned surprised me, for example, the negative connotations of referring to an individual with restricted growth as a dwarf. I know of a man with this condition who calls himself ‘DwarfmanJay’ on his social media accounts. He regularly gives inspirational speeches and co-hosts events concerning dwarfism and other disabilities. He does not appear to be offended by the term. So, who is offended? Is it those with the condition? Where is the Government website drawing its sources from that indicate some terms offend certain people?
      Naturally, terms which cause offence should be avoided, but I sometimes feel self-conscious about saying the right thing due to the frequent PC changes. The context of an expression needs to be taken into account as most people are not intending any insult by what they say.
      On the other aspect of PC mentioned, perhaps it is understandable why some primary schools have decided against using red pen for marking. This colour may have connotations of danger or anger, and may not always be used positively (university attendance warning emails as an example!), and children could be discouraged. However, it seems to me that this particular PC issue has been falsely created by drawing attention to red, as opposed to the use of any other colour.
      Plenty of material for discussion, thank you Vicki.

  2. A great blog Vicki, which I thought was really good and introduced the topic well.
    I definitely agree with you that although politically correct terms are only there to help civilisation and avoid causing offense, it seems that PC has gone mad in some ways. I found your example of the red pen issue in schools really interesting as I have never heard of this before and I agree that this does seem utterly ridiculous. I don’t think it is important enough to change and instead I imagine it would just create a more complicated system for a teacher. Do you think this is something that will really catch on in all schools?
    Your discussion of O’Neil’s (2011) euphemism treadmill shows that it is unnecessary for words to constantly be replaced with new terms, especially for something minor such as your example of a toilet. The fact that terms become offensive because of the ways in which we use them seem to suggest it is our own fault and although we all choose to avoid certain words it seems ridiculous that there are many PC terms people have never heard of. For example, I read that the PC term for calling someone short is ‘vertically challenged’ (Political Correctness- the awful truth) which seems to be, if anything, more offensive in my opinion! Something I think you and others may agree with. O’Neil (2011, p. 281) says the rudeness of a word does not come from the term’s “literal meaning” but from “its delivery: the tone and context in which it is delivered”. This once again shows it is our own fault that certain words have even become offensive and we are the reason this cycle continues.
    I read an interesting point from an article in The Observer that stated:
    “Perhaps we should all adopt the kids-on-the-bus attitude: accept that everyone is different, make jokes about it, but don’t take offence unless it’s meant. It’s about how you take a word, as much as what people mean by it. It’s just words. How personal do you want to get?” (Sawyer, 2012).
    This point shows, as you mentioned in your post Vicki, that really where do we draw the line? Is there really need for so much thought on the topic and by talking about it this much are we as a society just making it worse? Do you agree that it is as much about how a listener interprets a word, as how a speaker means it?
    From reading your blog it seems that political correctness will continue to be an issue that is debated and I definitely see good reason for certain terms to not be used because of their negative connotations, however, it seems some examples have gone too far.
    O’Neill, B. (2011). A Critique of Politically Correct Language. The Independent Review, 16(2), 279–291.
    Political correctness- the awful truth. Retrieved March 27, 2017, from http://www.politicallyincorrect.me.uk/banned.htm
    Sawyer, M. (2012, January 8). Miranda Sawyer wonders if we’re missing the point about “political correctness”. The Observer,

    Alice Leather

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