LINGUIST List 7.937

Thu Jun 27 1996

Disc: PC (penultimate posting)

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. benji wald, pc & borrowing

Message 1: pc & borrowing

Date: Thu, 13 Jun 1996 02:05:00 PDT
From: benji wald <IBENAWJMVS.OAC.UCLA.EDU>
Subject: pc & borrowing

Just a note on the antecedents of the term "politically correct" as
currently used. Caution: I will use the terms "the left" and "the
right" to refer to semantic fields associated with opposing
ideologies, because that will make it easier to understand what I'm
saying than if I used more precise terminology, assuming there is
any. It is very convenient that "left" and "right" are deictic terms
with only slightly more content than "this" and "that".

Clearly, the capacity for "left" to include "liberals" and
"communists" (cf. "far/ultra left") and "right" to include
"conservatives" and "fascists" (cf. "far/ultra right") is relevant to
the evolution of the term "political correctness", or PC for short.

Before the "Cold War" ended, the merger of "liberal" and "communist"
in the "right" semantic field was well under way. Policies supported
by liberals were called "communist". Contrary to popular belief,
Nationalist (=Apardheit) South Africa did not go the furthest with
this extension, they just held on to it longer in its full glory. The
halfway point was the common use in the 50s, maybe even earlier, in
the reference to "liberals" as "communist dupes". That meant they
weren't "communists", but they were following the communist line (out
of their "blind stupidity", vs. "fellow travelers", a 50s term for
those who sympathised with the communists but stayed away from the CP,
Communist Party, from prudence or cowardice -- "charitable" was the
term "pinko" for both types, instead of the libelous term "red").

Now that "communist" isn't an effective hate label anymore in the
West, "liberal" has totally replaced it in the right semantic field
(it's tiresome to keep putting in the scare quotes; I'm not gonna be
 (The 50s "The Enemy Within" written by some FBI agent is a good
source for rightist terms of that period -- I haven't seen it for a
long time but it's probably still available for 10c in giant used
paperback shops.)

PC bridges the gap. Borrowed from the left in the 1980s, it was
adopted by the right as a sarcasm against liberals according to the
typical deictic ploy of extending communist ideology to liberal
ideology. What's the difference, it's all the "left"? As I already
said, when communists became non-entities, the sarcasm was lost. The
beauty of the term PC is that it doesn't make any direct reference to
a particular ideology. Therefore it remains effective.

(Interesting thing. The right no longer has any use for the word
"communist" to stir up passions, but while no one overtly calls their
own beliefs or policies "fascist", the left still can and often does
use this term to describe various elements of the right. Is the term
PC the payback?)

I agree with Mark Mandel's assessment of Baron's citation of earlier
uses. I would put it as follows (in fact, I did, but I didn't send
the post in time.)

Dennis Baron's rich display of early uses was interesting. A problem
that sometimes comes up in historical linguistics when things appear,
seem to disappear, and then reappear is whether there is continuity of
new uses with old ones or whether there is independent innovation. It
seems likely that at least his late 18th c citation is not continuous
with current usage, and is less of a catch phrase than it is an
analytical phrase where the terminal nodes were filled by independent
lexical items. Despite the soundness of Chomsky's early arguments
against probabilistic grammars, it sometimes happens that two speakers
of the same language independently fill in the same structure, esp. a
two-word one, with the same lexical items. Sometimes that happens and
it doesn't even become a cliche. In contrast, no one would maintain
such for the expression "politically correct" today, as it races on to
complete idiomhood, cf. "PC" (homonym with "personal computer", "Price
Club", what else?).

On the other hand, Fritz Newmeyer's ascription of the term to the
left is the one which is usually cited as historically continuous
with the "right's" cooption of it, esp in academia.

The continuity seems to be this. As Fritz noted, the left, particularly
the "radical" left, Marxist, Maoist, Trotskyite, whatever, used the
term straight-faced. The academic and dogmatic implications were there
for the "impartial" to behold. Marxism was based on scholarship, a form
of sociology at that, and therefore there were many interpretations. Das
Kapital is as fertile as the Bible to stimulate prophets. It's what
academics call a "seminal" work. Depending on the interpreter/prophet,
then, one or another conclusion was "correct". Hence the authoritarian
overtones to "correct", cf. Department of Correction/s and "correctional
facilities" (no doubt reflecting "liberal" labels for "incarceration/
prisons/jails" -- anything but "punishment/revenge").

The "political" part is easy, since politics is organised social action.
While Marx was simply a theoretician, an analyst of society, an extremely
original one at that, and often a very passionate writer, the only
form of Marxism of interest to the society at large is associated with
political action. Therefore, "politically correct" became the "correct"
line of social action to take according to a leadership's interpretation
of social conditions, ultimately based on Marxist theory, as amended,
adopted and inevitably fragmented. From this we can see how the term
could be used straight-faced, even innocently.

One thing that the posts haven't clarified yet, and this is surprising
for linguists, is whether "politically correct" is a calque from
another language in its Marxist usage. (If it is, FBI Chief Hoover
would have jumped up and said "aha!", i.e., "unAmerican!")

Fritz allows himself the aside that what was "politically correct"
among the Maoist Trotskyites that he was familiar with was a matter
of political expedience. Here there was a chance for humor or
sarcasm to enter, but not for those who accepted the dogma, only for
those who were or became hostile to it. Regardless of the term, the
most disorienting example of political expedience for Communist dogma
came when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression
pact on the eve of WW2 in 1939. For many, this was carrying political
expedience too far -- and it was not even clear that Marx would have
approved. Several years earler, it seemd to Orwell that during the
Spanish Civil War, the Communist (= Stalinist) advisers and political
officers to the Spanish Republicans were dogmatists who were squandering
any chance the Republicans had of defeating the fascists.

(NB. Spanish Republicans = those supporting the *Republic* of Spain
 Spanish fascists = those supporting the *Empire* of Spain -- which
 consisted of the same territory plus Heaven.
I mention this because I have met people who automatically confuse
"Republicans" with "the bad guys", and guess that the fascist leader
Franco was their leader -- sic transit the meaning of terms. For those
unfamiliar with US political semantics, Republicans are associated
with the right, in the 20th c, while the Spanish Republicans were
associated with the left. Confusing, eh? I don't want to add to
the confusion by noting that the Spanish fascists called themselves
"Nationalists". I call them fascists because they WERE fascists,
but don't take my word for it, ask Mussolini.)

It seemed to Orwell the Communists were not sufficiently concerned with
the survival of Republican Spain, just as a few years later it seemed to
many that Stalin was not concerned with the survival of (what was left of
the) Communists in Germany or anywhere else where he wasn't able to
directly control them. "Animal Farm" and "1984" are Orwell's celebrated
allegories dealing with the mechanics of propaganda and use of force in
totalitarian regimes, but particularly his firsthand impressions of
the Stalinists in Spain. We linguists, of course, remember him
mostly for his "essay on the English language". But here we are
more concerned with the semantics of Newspeak. (I said "Newspeak", not

The point of the above is that as the term "politically correct" gelled
on the left, it would provide grist for the mill of the enemies of the
left, just waiting for the appropriate opportunity to exploit its
dogmatic connotations, along with the apparent duplicity of its
leaders and supposedly covert manipulation of the people who accepted the
dogma. Before it was discovered in the 1980s, various terms, most of them
extremely crude by today's standards were used. "Communist dupe" is a
typical example. "dupe" is a much more insulting word than "politically
correct", the latter "merely" implying, according to Charles Rowe's
posting, "incorrect" in some more important way (e.g., morally, ethically
- grammatically?).

Finally, as Fritz, among others, mentioned, "politically correct"
refers to behavior, not necessarily to beliefs. This is more salient
than the idea of being duped, in current usage. It too may be traced
back to political expediency, as practiced and rationalised by powerful
leftist policy makers. So the implication is, if you're too intelligent
to be a dupe, you're politically correct by acting in one way, which may
change as it suits you or your role model, but thinking in another,
hence, hypocrisy. By the way, hypocrisy and complaints about
"social pressure" go together. Messages about social pressure to do or
say this or not to do or say that translate into pressure to act
hypocritically. It's just politer not to use the word "hypocrite". So
these two features don't have to be distinguished, though more could be
said about them than I will.

Aimed at liberals, the implication of "dogmatic" in the term doomed
the colorful metaphor "knee-jerk liberal". The latter term reveals
that one of the major ingredients in PC is not particularly new
as a concept -- and it implies "liberal". There never was such a
concept as *knee-jerk conservative/communist/fascist/fundamentalist...
(NB There's also the concept of the "bleeding heart liberal" but
the attitude of compassion referred to in that term might evoke
sympathy from bystanders, so it was not pasted on to PC, and
does not have a place in the current semantic complex under
discussion. The absence of pejoration of compassion may have to do
with "humanitarian" as an upgraded concept used as a reason for
military intervention into other nations, where "Communist threat"
had previously been sufficient.)

As the Cold War receded, "political correctness" as a term of offense
was not affected, because it does not mention any particular association
overtly. We really only see the continuity in the CONTEXTS in which
it is used, i.e., the policies and standards of behavior that it is
directed AGAINST.

One interesting private message I got against my quote of Vicky
bristles at the idea that if you are "against" PC you are a racist.
That shows how confusing the term can be.

EVERYBODY is against PC as defined by those who use the term seriously.
Nobody seriously, or at least publicly, justifies anything they
do by saying it's "political correct". That would be like saying,
*do it because it's the foolish/hypocritical/?dogmatic thing to do.
As Vicky said, the term is used AGAINST... not FOR anything. The term
does not belong to the left any more. It belongs to everybody -- and
the right has defined it for everybody. So be it. Are we learning
something about borrowing here?

As pointed out in previous messages, further extensions and occasions
for humor remain, as in the example of offering to help wash the hosts'
dishes -- which is a common current custom, small price for a meal.

Lexicographers will have to sort out these uses, e.g., are they "literal"
extensions or "figurative" uses of some other "literal" sense? So we have
a very interesting and productive term on our hands. It captures something
about the current state of our society which will no doubt jog memories in
the future, the way Verb-ins cover the same society in the 60s through
early 1970s (the non-linguistic reasons why Verb-ins and what they
refer to died out can be discussed when we get serious about exploring
these semantic fields in socio-political rhetoric).
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