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