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According to Etymology Online, politically correct means

...the political movement and phenomenon, which began in the USA, with the aim to enforce a set of ideologies and views on gender, race and other minorities. Political correctness refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups like women and aims at giving preferential treatment to members of those social groups...

However, when I looked up political, I found

Of, relating to, or dealing with the structure or affairs of government, politics, or the state; relating to, involving, or characteristic of politics or politicians

Furthermore, I found this use of politically correct, which seems to refer to government as well.

This phrase goes back further than one might believe, to 1793, in fact. It was first used by the American judge Justice James Wilson in the case of Chisholm v. Georgia, and was meant to distinguish between the phrases United States and people of the United States - he believed the latter to be politically correct.

And, in 1911,

In those days we did not so much get correct political and economic views, for there was then little teaching of sociology or political economy worthy the name...

Has the meaning of the word political changed? Why is it used when referring to certain groups? What does being politically correct really mean? Is it something about politics and laws, or does it mean to be fair, neutral, unprejudiced?

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Note: a hedge is a line of bushes around your garden. The sharp part of a razor blade is its edge, not its hedge. :-) –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 6 '14 at 11:34
@JanusBahsJacquet - I thought it was an appropriate use of hedge in a mixed metaphor kind of way once I thought about it. –  medica Apr 6 '14 at 11:42
I'm not really sure what you're asking for here. You have a strange metaphor in your title, yet in the contents of your question, you simply ask for its meaning (which you can easily get from google). CAn you be more explicit in your question? –  Mitch Apr 6 '14 at 11:51
This question is about etiquette and not language per se. –  Kris Apr 6 '14 at 12:53
It's not related to polite at all -- think of Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. And to say it's required is ridiculous: it's only required by those who believe they can speak for others. –  Andrew Leach Apr 6 '14 at 19:07

4 Answers 4

up vote 4 down vote accepted

The meaning of the term used in the 1793 quote is not the same as its meaning today. It's a mere coincidence of vocabulary. It would be better translated as "formally correct", having no implication of a political stance. A closer match to the current meaning is the use of the term in Soviet Russia, particularly during the Stalin era, when writers or poets or artists might be hauled before committees and accused of not adopting "the correct ideological position" in their work.

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This answer is not compatible with that given by medica ('in line with prevailing political thought or policy'). –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 6 '14 at 15:20
@Edwin Ashworth I wasn't necessarily after compatibility with someone else's post. But it seems to me that "the correct ideological position" is not that far removed, if at all, from "in line with prevailing political thought or policy". –  Terpsichore Apr 6 '14 at 16:14
'[H]aving no implication of a political stance' and 'in line with prevailing political thought or policy' are diametrically opposite. –  Edwin Ashworth Apr 6 '14 at 18:03
"Having no implication of a political stance" is a judgement on the 1793 statement. I believe medica said the same thing (since you're looking for "compatibility"): "The 1793 usage you refer to is not that which is usually meant today." –  Terpsichore Apr 6 '14 at 19:10

I think it's most often used to indicate speech without prejudice. Generally it describes avoidance of unpopular speech that might offend various social minorities, including those defined by gender, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, weight and disability.

Long answer:

The Etymology Online entrance states

"first attested in prevailing current sense 1970; abbreviation P.C. is from 1986."

and goes on to add

Political correctness refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups like women and aims at giving preferential treatment to members of those social groups... [Thuy Nguyen, "Political Correctness in the English Language,"2007]

Anther source confirms the origin of the phrase in the 1970s:

The terms 'politically correct' and 'political correctness' entered the language via the U.S. feminist and other left-wing movements of the 1970s. ...The earliest printed reference that is unambiguous...in its current commonly understood sense is Toni Cade's The Black Woman, 1970: "A man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist too."

Note: Wikipedia dates it from early to mid-20th c, referring to communist political debates, supported by this entry at linguist.org.

The 1793 usage you refer to is not that which is usually meant today.

The previous meaning was 'in line with prevailing political thought or policy', that is, in its literal sense and without any particular reference to language that some might consider illiberal or discriminatory. (italics mine)

J. Wilson's comments in U.S. Republic, 1793:

"The states, rather than the people, for whose sake the states exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention... ‘The United States’, instead of the ‘People of the United States’, is the toast given. This is not politically correct."

Some view the term "politically correct" to be wrong in that it portrays a stance that they oppose as correct (or "the eruption of social tyranny". A good example of this is the same-sex marriage debate and how it is viewed differently by liberals and conservatives.

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What it "really" means is the choice or control of language according to some political ideology -- usually liberal-left ideas. Different people take this to be a good thing or a bad thing, though. Mostly according to their political ideology or the supposed extent of the control. So the term emphasises different behaviours when used by different people, and in my experience is commonly used to describe pretty much anything from discouraging the use of expletives, to discouraging the expression of views opposing immigration.

Disclaimer: I am broadly sympathetic to the project taking prejudiced language out of the norm of public discourse, although I'm unsympathetic to the notion that any word must never be used under any circumstances, and also to the notion that straying from correct expression is necessarily bad. This will no doubt affect how I represent the use of the term!

Of course since it's all about political discourse it is frequently mis-used, both accidentally and tactically. People do not always assess with precision the difference between attempting to control expression, vs. merely disagreeing with or disapproving of the views expressed! This is so common that I think one could make a case for "political correctness" having lost most of any precise meaning it ever had.

You can look at a lot of examples of it being used in slightly different ways in etymological sources or the Wikipedia article. It "really means" all of those things that it was used to mean, and understood by the person who heard it used. What links them is the notion that there are certain words or phrases that should or should not be used according to whether one approves of the concepts behind those words.

Now, if one believes that all of the excluded words are unfair and prejudiced, then to be "politically correct" is to use a fair, neutral, unprejudiced vocabulary. That does not imply actually being neutral or even being fair and unprejudiced. Some consider it a necessary but insufficient condition. The term is normally used somewhat derisively, so normally is not intended to mean "neutral" at all, it means "supporting a particular ideology by controlling the use of language".

I think the term is most commonly used to express hostility towards the idea of language being "good" / "bad", "allowed" / "not allowed", with the implication being that the "politically correct" vocabulary is not fair or neutral. In such cases the term "political correctness gone mad" is commonplace, to the point of being a cliche here in the UK, and often to describe some invented or easily-solved outrage. Many people feel about political correctness approximately the same way they feel about health and safety (another idea that gets attention primarily when it has "gone mad"). They feel that to criticise the use of particular words is by definition an unreasonable interference with common sense and personal liberty.

However, since that's the same common sense that used racial slurs commonly in everyday conversation 40 years ago, and since in any case common sense dictates avoiding certain words in certain contexts for a variety of reasons, I think one can reasonably question the universality of common sense ;-) There is of course a response to that hostile usage, where people use the term more positively, trying to counter the notion that "political correctness" is inherently nefarious.

During the 70s and 80s, though, it was applied self-mockingly by those who supported an attempt at changing the vocabulary of public political discourse, since they were aware that the analysis and moderation they were trying to apply to their own use of language and that of other people, could be compared with the censorship of ideas during the Cultural Revolution in China. The reference is to the idea that during the Cultural Revolution the term was used (not originally in English, I assume) for a body of ideas that were "politically correct", i.e. in accordance with ideology. Being "politically incorrect" under Maoism could be very dangerous. AFAIK the modern uses can be traced back to this description of Maoism.

So, "political correctness" can mean rolling your eyes when someone uses the n-word, or it can mean executing political dissidents. Naturally that makes it something of a weapon in the hands of someone who wants to use the n-word without anybody rolling their eyes. But it also describes a genuine danger for those who want to suggest that a less-commonly-reviled word than that is inappropriate to use. The risk is that of interfering with usage that actually is more-or-less innocent.

For example English has in it racial insults such as "welshing on a bet", "Dutch courage", that the people using them genuinely don't intend as racial slurs, although no doubt they can puzzle out the origins of terms once they put their minds to it. More mildly, the use of the word "lame" to mean "bad in some way" is a slur on anyone with a limp even though I'm pretty sure it's just an analogy based on the fact that lameness by definition is walking badly. The problem is the choice of physical disability as the canonical representation of "being bad". These terms are politically incorrect, and sometimes are actually insulting. But one might resent interference with the language on the basis of what one sees solely as irrelevant etymology, especially if you feel like you've been accused of being a racist just because you don't know what something originally meant, or because you see two meanings as conceptually unrelated even though the etymology is clearly via an intentional prejudice against a particular group. So even when the term "political correctness" is used in a hostile way to mean "inappropriate authoritarianism over language", it's not always disingenuous.

I think the example from 1793 is a use of the term literally: that one or the other term was accurate in terms of politics, and the other was inaccurate. You'd think that's unrelated to the modern use, which is far more specific than the literal meaning and not even entirely consistent with it. It's not what the term really means any more than "terrible" really means "inspiring terror", but naturally all words can carry shades of their former meanings, as idioms do of their literal meanings.

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Years ago I went with a friend to a country where cars drive on the left, rather than on the right as they do where I live. At one point she exclaimed, to people who lived there

Oh, your escalators are backwards too!

This is not "politically correct" because it says that there is something wrong with their escalators for matching their own roads instead of our escalators. (It's also rude.) She could have said "opposite to ours" instead of "backwards" which would not have carried the implied meaning that ours are right and theirs are wrong (backwards.)

There are all kinds of things people say that are a little (or a lot) hurtful in this way. Sometimes, people who like to say these things ("lady doctor", for example) object when they're corrected and say "oh, sorry, guess that's not politically correct" implying that it is, however, just plain correct.

At some point in the 80s or 90s it morphed from being an insult aimed at "liberals" by people who liked speaking as they always had done and didn't like being told that was offending others, and turned into something the careful-speakers also used to describe their careful speech. It means choosing names, adjectives, and phrases in full consideration of factors like what people want to be called, and whether people like to be described as exceptions or not. This has no relation to the quote in your question, which is from an entirely different time.

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Ref your last para, I'd always understood it was originally used ironically in the 60's and 70's by liberals and others on the Left, to parodically refer to ideas or statements that seemed akin to those coming from further left - Mao Tse-Tung and Pol Pot, say- in the same way they might use the term 'Comrade'. I've even heard it used as an antonym to 'factually correct' in that sort of context. From there it lost its ironic tone and moved increasingly towards its modern usage. In other words it was already morphing in the same sort of way before the point you pick it up in the 80's and 90's –  peterG Apr 6 '14 at 16:27
@peterG: I'm pretty sure that the left in the 60s and 70s in my country used the term "comrade" entirely unironically. Doesn't mean it wasn't also sometimes ironic, ofc. –  Steve Jessop Apr 6 '14 at 19:12
@Steve Jessop I'm sure you're right. I was struggling to find a phrase that would sum up the same kind of resonance that iirc 'Politically Correct' originally had. –  peterG Apr 6 '14 at 20:49
@Steve Jessop (contd) Your reply above, especially the para 'During the 70's and 80's. . . .' is what I was groping towards. –  peterG Apr 6 '14 at 20:56

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