LINGUIST List 5.1230

Fri 04 Nov 1994

Sum: Political correctness

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  • , "Politically correct": summary

    Message 1: "Politically correct": summary

    Date: Thu, 03 Nov 1994 11:24:12 "Politically correct": summary
    From: <>
    Subject: "Politically correct": summary

    On Wed, 21 Sep 1994, I posted the following query:

    > In vol. 5.1022 Rex A. Sprouse wrote > > In terms of the politics of the discussion [of the term > "informant"], I think that in the United States we have seen a > kind of Orwellian development with the use of the term > "politically correct" as a PEJORATIVE term. > > Based on dim personal recollections, my sense of the latter term > is that "politically correct" first surfaced in English in Maoist > literature. There it was used with a straight face, since > correctness was viewed as being, like everything else, subject to > constant definition and redefinition by the Party. I recall > feeling that this world-view implicit in the phrase was so > contradictory to democratic ideals that only a person who accepted > political authority over truth could possibly use it without > ironic intent. > > Does anyone have any more concrete data on the history of this > politically loaded expression? >

    I received replies from eight people; I reproduce them below. I apologize for the long delay in publishing these.

    Mark A. Mandel Dragon Systems, Inc. : speech recognition : +1 617 965-5200 320 Nevada St. : Newton, Mass. 02160, USA :

    P.S.: This document was dictated with DragonDictate v2.0.


    I first heard "pc" (in the relevant sense) in one of two (possibly three places): Hartford Courant, New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times.

    There was a story relating to an incident where a job applicant was being interviewed for a job. He was denied. There was some question as to why -- this is before affirmative action helped explain such matters.

    He demanded to see all relevant materials. He inquired into the significance of the comment written at the bottom corner of his application "not pc."

    He was a conservative. It "came out" that it meant not politically correct. Whether there was legal action, I don't know. These are the best of my recollections of the STORY I read years ago. As for myself, I don't know whether it is pc to deny that pc is pc, or to invert the current meaning, or to deny it makes any sense. Until it is cleared up. I will not broach the matter with my superiors. I don't have to, it is a free country :/



    The term seems to have entered common use in anglophone Canada first of all as social democrat teasing of the Maoists and the Stalinists for their pomposity. "Correct analysis" could be used in the same way, as in, "You have the correct analysis, comrade," for "I agree with you." this could be said only to other socialists, of course; the totalitarian left never got the joke. "Politically correct" was - and in safe company still is - used by the democratic left in self-mockery, as in: "We have politically correct fruit salad tonight, _no_ California grapes." The term seems to have become pejorative as it has been taken over by people who are incapable of seeing the comic side of their own ideals.


    But notice that TODAY the American Right uses the term as a PEJORATIVE term for virtually any notion with any kind of ethical motivation. In so doing, the Right derides not Maoism, but the ideology of classical liberal democracy society, where redefinition does not occur by the party running a one-party state, but by free and open exchange of ideas, and where ethical concerns (as well as pragmatic concerns) are relevant.

    Rex Sprouse [whose comment prompted my original question -- MAM]


    I imagine the list is going to be inundated with opinions about Political Correctness for a while now. It should be interesting to see how the linguistics community feels about this issue.

    I'm young enough that I was completely unaware of the connection of the term with Maoism. I can tell you, however, that it is currently being used on college campuses by certain groups with no ironic intention. Nowadays, what is politically correct is anything, particularly language, that is not sexist, racist, heterosexist, lookist, ageist, ableist, etc. The groups fighting these -isms tend to use the term quite straightforwardly to refer to what they believe is the only accepted way to be.

    It seems to me that the current situation Mr. Sprouse mentioned has resulted from the near-fascist enforcement tactics of these special interest groups and the mangling of language that PC results in, rather than any historic reasons.

    Benjamin Moore Japan Electronic Dictionary Research Institute Ltd. Kawasaki, Japan


    A few years ago when reading Krushchev's secret speech in which he denounced Stalin for the first time (at the 1956 Communist Party Congress) , I noticed the use of a term in Russian that could be translated as "politically correct." While denouncing Stalin, Krushchev maintained a belief in the "politically correct"--which Stalin obviously wasn't.


    Re: Mark Mandel's inquiry about the origins of "politically correct": Ric Dolphin's Not Politically Correct (1992) confirms Mark's belief that the term originated in the Thoughts of Mao Tse Tung. Dolphin states that its first use in the U.S. was by Angela Davis in 1971 when she argued that there could be no "opposing argument to an issue which has only one correct side." Then in 1975, the then-president of the National Organization of Women said that organization was moving in "the intellectually and politically correct direction." The 1971 quotation seems to confirm Mark's view that only those who accept political authority over the quest for truth could use the term with no ironic intent.


    I first heard "PC/politically correct" in the early 80s used wryly and humorously about themselves by people trying to live lives of some modicum of independence from agribusiness and the consumption of fossil fuel. I was really sorry to see it turned from gentle humor to the grim tool it has become in the hands of demagogues.

    F. Karttunen

    v ================================

    Dear Mark,

    I don't know where the term "politically correct" first entered English, but the etymology you give would certainly be consistent with my experience. Back in the early '80s I knew "politically correct" as a term that leftists might use to poke fun at those whose (putatively leftist) politics seemed too doctrinaire. Later, various writers, commentators, and politicians hostile to the left seized on the term as if it had been used seriously--in other words, as if there had been leftists (in the US) who applied the term to themselves without irony. Now, what had been something of an inside leftwing joke has been turned into a weapon brandished against the left. For example, in 1982, say, a leftist might have blown off steam about some dogmatic person or organization by characterizing her or it as "politically correct." But now I hear the term used by non-leftists, often to evoke an image of rigid leftist/multi-culturalist/academic types taking over our institutions and seeking to control our minds--as if such a move were afoot, and as if the left had that much power. At this point, if "politically correct" ever regains an ironic connotation, perhaps it will be as a word that makes fun of the political right. For example, sometimes I hear people call each other "commie" or "pinko" in a manner whose real intent is to make fun of the prejudices of anti-communists. I could imagine that "politically correct" might one day be used similarly.