LINGUIST List 7.937

Thu Jun 27 1996

Disc: PC (penultimate posting)

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  • 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 consistent). (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 "Newsweek".)

    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).