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?

  • 5
    Note: a hedge is a line of bushes around your garden. The sharp part of a razor blade is its edge, not its hedge. :-) Apr 6, 2014 at 11:34
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    @JanusBahsJacquet - I thought it was an appropriate use of hedge in a mixed metaphor kind of way once I thought about it. Apr 6, 2014 at 11:42
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    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, 2014 at 11:51
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    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, 2014 at 19:07
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    Politically correct is defined by the current political climate, and not directly related to being polite. You might say that it is directly related to being political or diplomatic.
    – Mike
    Apr 6, 2014 at 20:45

5 Answers 5


Dictionary definitions of 'politically correct'

The term politically correct first appears in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series in the Tenth Collegiate Dictionary (1993), with this entry:

politically correct adj (1983) : conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend the political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated

The Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) retains the identical wording of its predecessor's definition, but bumps the first-occurrence date back to 1936.

Christine Ammer, The Random House Dictionary of Idioms (1997) has this entry for the term:

politically correct Also PC or p.c. Showing an effort to make broad social and political changes to redress injustices caused by prejudice. It often involves changing or avoiding language that might offend anyone, especially with respect to gender, race, or ethnic background. [Example omitted.] This expression was born in the late 1900s, and excesses in trying to conform to its philosophy gave rise to humorous parodies.

The first edition of the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language to include politically correct is the fourth edition (2000):

politically correct adj. Abbr. PC 1. Of relating to, or supporting broad social, political, and educational change, especially to redress historical injustices in matters such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. 2. Being or perceived as being overconcerned with such change, often to the exclusion of other matters.

The Oxford American Dictionary and Thesaurus (2003) has these entries beneath a much longer entry for political:

political correctness avoidance of forms of expression and action that exclude or marginalize sexual, racial, and cultural minorities; advocacy of this. ... politically correct in conformance with political correctness.

All of these definitions are startlingly precise and narrowly drawn—as if they came from a glossary of terms in a sociology textbook rather than from a generalized summation of popular usage. This, I suspect, is not accidental.

Also striking is how tenuously the word politically in the phrase politically correct is tied to any established definition of the root word political in the Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary:

political adj (1551) 1 a : of or relating to government, a government, or the conduct of government b : of, relating to, or concerned with the making as distinguished from the administration of governmental policy 2 : of, relating to, involving, or involved in politics and especially party politics 3 : organized in governmental terms {political units} 4 : involving or charged or concerned with acts against a government or a political system {political prisoners}

To the extent that the political correctness movement's core concern was to improve the English language by removing or defanging words and phrases that tended to perpetuate injustice, social exclusivity, and cultural offensiveness, the project's goal might have been better served by adopting a descriptive phrase such as "culturally [or socially] correct [or neutral or sensitive]." Instead, adherents went with a phrase that put politics (with its unsavory connotations of scheming and duplicity) front and center. Perhaps the wording choice was a natural reflection of the radical nature of the movement out of which the push for nonsexist language emerged.

On its face, politically correct doesn’t betray a particular political orientation. And that fact makes it susceptible to revisionist use—as we shall see.

Origins of 'politically correct' as an idiom

John K. Wilson, The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (1995) cites the 1793 instance of "politically correct" in U.S. Supreme Court Justice James Wilson’s opinion in Chisholm v. Georgia:

In the United States, and in the several States, ... we go one step farther than we ought to go in this unnatural and inverted order of things. The States, rather than the PEOPLE, for whose sakes the States exist, are frequently the objects, which attract and arrest our principal attention. ... Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our common, even in our convivial, language. Is a toast asked? "The United States," instead of the "People of the United States," is the toast given. This is not politically correct. The toast is meant to present to view the first great object in the Union : It presents only the second : It presents only the artificial person, instead of the natural persons, who spoke it into existence.

John Wilson also quotes two sources that link the first modern use of politically correct to jargon used by members of the Communist Party of the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. A similar (but unnamed) source may well account for the 1936 occurrence that the Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary cites.

Phase 1: 'politically correct' but not liberal

A Google Books search turns up an early instance of "politically correct" from Alexander Stephens, Public Characters (1798):

That his lordship [Lord Charlemont] was either morally or politically correct, in an opinion which tended to perpetuate political incapacities on account of religious tenets, would perhaps be difficult to prove ; but that he acted on that occasion, as on all others, rather from a consciousness of right, than a view to popular applause, cannot be doubted, for to his popularity nothing at that time could have been so fatal.

A profusion of additional instances pop up throughout the nineteenth century. Here are three representative ones. From an address to the Senate in February 1820 by Mr. Richard Johnson of Kentucky in "The Missouri Question," reprinted in Teachings of Patriots and Statesmen: Or, The "Founders of the Republic" on Slavery (1860):

On reviewing the scope of argument, on both sides, I am satisfied that the one [the anti-slavery faction] cannot be justly charged with advocating the sentiments which their language would seem to indicate ; nor the other [the pro-slavery faction], with an attempt to justify the abstract principle of slavery as either religiously, morally, or politically, correct. None will pretend, that Congress can interfere with the subject of slavery in the several States ; and no member of the Senate could advocate the slave trade without exciting the indignation of the whole nation.

From notes of a speech by Mr. Brent on Monday, February 17, 1845, in Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of Louisiana (1845):

Should this tremendous power [to decide "all the great political questions that are agitated before the country"] be confided to men whom you are forced to disqualify from holding the very offices they have created? ... Can a greater absurdity than this be conceived? The creature is elevated above the creator. The very order of things is inverted, and the governmental pyramid stands upon it apex. Instead of our institutions reposing on the broad foundation of the popular sovereignty, it seems to be supposed that its stability can only be secured by a reliance upon the officers and agents of the people,—From whence was the doctrine derived that the agent is greater than the principal? Such a doctrine I repudiate ; for it is neither legally nor politically correct.

And from "The Work of the Texas State Railway Commission," in Engineering News and American Railway Journal (April 23, 1896):

As a matter of fact, after a careful examination of the last report of the Texas railway commission, we are constrained to believe that this bad name [with regard to its attitude toward the railways] is undeserved. If the attitude of the state toward the railways is correctly set forth in the commission's report, we are free to say that the position is economically and politically correct, and that other states and state railway commissions can profitably study the work that has been done in Texas.

Examples also occur in English sources of the nineteenth century. For instance, from Galignani’s Messenger: The Spirit of the English Journals (September 13, 1825):

Sir,—The newspapers still teem with reports of Lord Cochrane's projected armament in aid of the Greeks, There are different opinions concerning it ; but in judging of it, many, I am afraid, do not discriminate between that which they think is morally right. and that which is politically correct.

In all of these instances, the sense of politically correct appears to be much closer to what one would intuitively expect: "politically wise," "politically appropriate or advisable," or "politically defensible."

Phase 2: ‘politically correct’ in left-wing discourse, 1928–1960

The earliest instances where being "politically correct" is specifically a concern of liberal or leftist thinking occur in the late 1920s and early 1930s. But in general the sense of the term in these documents does not extend to issues of language such as vocabulary choice, which makes it somewhat different from the core conception of the term in the 1980s and later. Rather, the crucial elements of such correctness are political orthodoxy (measured against the ever-changing line of the Communist International) and practical political effect. The earliest relevant document may be from the Communist Party of Great Britain, The Communist International: Between the Fifth and Sixth World Congresses, 1924–8 (1928) [combined snippets]:

I.—The Period of Struggle Against Opportunist and Social Democratic Survivals.

The courageous and politically correct campaign of the C[ommunist] P[arty of] F[rance] in the Moroccan war had a positive and decisive result in the internal life of the Party. It allowed the exposure of the group of opportunist elements represented by Paz and Loriot, who, together with the counter-revolutionary Souvarine, attacked the essential principles of Leninism in the fundamental questions of revolutionary defeatism...

Also, from a document reported in "Thesis and Resolutions for the Seventh National Convention of the Communist Party of U.S.A." (1930) [combined snippets]:

The sharp struggle against the right opportunist line followed by some comrades (Corbishley, Volzey, in the coal fields, and Feingold in the needle trades) was a prerequisite for the successful carrying through of mass struggles. The removal of these comrades from their posts when they resisted the efforts of the District Polbureau to correct their line was politically correct. The theories of Feingold of "no radicalization in the needle trades," of a "genuine lockout" in the millinery strike, and his defeatist line on the possibilities of building the Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union ... are incompatible with the holding of leading positions in the party or the revolutionary unions.

From John Strachey, Literature and Dialectical Materialism (1934):

We cannot too strictly criticize the work of our own writers. Their political thinking, their knowledge of Marxism may be beyond question; but that, surely, should not free them from the sternest attempt to evaluate their work as literature. We are sometimes a little apt to pretend, to wish, to suggest that such writers are necessarily better writers, because they are more politically correct, than are our fellow travellers. Surely we should be on our guard against this natural desire?

And from R. Jonas, "Jokes and 1940," in Investigation of Un-American Propaganda Activities in the United States (1939 [date not confirmed]) [combined snippets]:

It wasn’t so long ago that Communists were depicted as people with long faces, first cousins to Groucho Marx, when he said: "Whatever it is, I'm against it!" Since the 7th World Congress, our Party has taken tremendous strides in overcoming the traditional sectarianism we inherited from the left-wing of the American labor movement. Even a reactionary magazine like "Life," devoting a full page to the recent Y[oung] C[ommunist] L[eague] Convention, was forced to take note of this and reprint the Y. C. L. theme song: "You Can’t Live On Love."


When is a joke in order? When not? This was asked in a recent S.E.C. meeting where a certain, current, personal joke in Jax Party circles was taken as a serious political matter in the family of a leading Jax comrade, raising havoc in his personal life.

What is the yard-stick for everything we do? Is it not: "Does this action help or hinder the working class and the progressive movement?" If it helps, it's a correct action. If it hinders, it’s wrong. If a joke makes us more acceptable to the masses, it's politically correct. If it raises havoc in a comrade's home life, it's politically incorrect.

Let's politicalize our jokes by using this yardstick—use it carefully, but let's not relinquish the valuable weapon of humor and ridicule in the struggles we face in 1940.

As late as Alex Bittelman, A Communist Views America's Future (1960) [combined snippets], the traditional left-wing notion of politically correct is on display in the grand style of CPUSA jargon:

From a Marxist standpoint, this is what has to be said about the Tennessee Valley Authority: it represents a victory of the anti-monopoly forces of the nation in their struggle to curb the powers of the monopolies, a democratic victory, which expresses the irreconcilable contradiction between the monopolies and the general capitalist environment of free competition and commodity production, within a framework of a bourgeois democratic state in the process of subjugation to the monopolies. ...

This is theoretically correct because it embraces dynamically, in motion, all the major aspects of this development. It is politically correct because it reveals the line and direction of the historic struggles of the American people against the monopolies. It is the struggle which is now, and has been for more than 75 years, the main, motive power behind all progressive movements of the American people.

Phase 3: 'politically correct' in the late 1970s and early 1980s

From American Society of Geolinguistics, Geolinguistics (1986) [combined snippets]:

Politically correct used to be confined more or less to left-wing political speech. Then it moved into the lesbian movement, became p.c. as well, moved into (principally if not exclusively) California gay vocabulary, reached the East Coast, and now is used in some (but not all, by any means) parts of the U.S. It is to some extent current American regional English and even has slightly different meanings in different groups and different places.

Google Books search results for the period from 1970 to 1984 tend to bear out the Geolinguistics summary.

From Regina Teasley, The Structure and Interrelationships of Groups Within a Local Social Movement: A Case Study of the Women's Movement in Ann Arbor from 1968-1973 (1976) [combined snippets]:

"We called ourselves 'dyke separatists' which meant separate from anyone who wasn't a 'dyke separatist' for the most part, even from radical straight women and from Lesbians who didn't have their politics together," a member said. For them, discussing politics was particularly important; "Constantly we went through, 'What is the politically correct thing to do?'"

From Joan Cassell, A Group Called Women: Sisterhood & Symbolism in the Feminist Movement (1977) [combined snippets]:

One woman in a consciousness-raising group said she preferred to have women friends, although she still wanted one important man in her life—just one. She finds women more interesting, partially because there is "less hassle" involved in friendship with women. She thought her need or desire for a man must be due to the conditioning she received, but this conditioning is very strong, and she finds it difficult to think about a woman sexually. She knows, however, that it would be better, or more "politically correct," if she got it all together with a woman. The other members assented, appearing to agree that it was almost a personal defect— or one of conditioning— that made them feel sexually attracted to men.

One of the earliest examples of "politically correct" used in the specific context of sexist language appears in Sol Saporta, "Sexist Language and the Competence/Performance Distinction," a paper delivered at a 1978 meeting of the Modern Language Association, reprinted in Studies in Diachronic, Synchronic, and Typological Linguistics (1979):

But now, even granting the above [analysis], the political strategy is far from obvious. ... Specifically what, if any, changes in attitude follow from changes in linguistic rules and usage? ... Another limitation of much work on sexist language is that it seems to assert some simple causal connection between language and cognition, which is to believe in a form of word magic. The evidence is far from conclusive, and in spite of heated lengthy debate, it is not always clear precisely what claims are being made about the relationship of language, both competence and performance, to values, attitudes, beliefs, etc. ... So, for example the misplaced indignation at the word history usually results in the trivialization of the whole issue of sexist language.

Less obviously, but I believe almost as futile are debates about whether it is politically correct to refer to a woman who writes poetry as a poet or poetess. The fact is that whereas in English a woman can be referred to as either, a man can be referred to as a poet only, not a poetess. The asymmetry is in the system, and persists regardless of any pattern of usage. A related question, of course, is how changes in usage may or may not result in changes in the system.

Under the circumstances, the decision by advocates of a less biased form of everyday English to frame their project in terms of "political correctness" comes across as a monumentally tone-deaf invocation of a term burdened with the baggage of discredited Stalin-era left-wing orthodoxy as well as the holier-than-thou radical sectarianism of the 1960s and 1970s.

Current use of 'politically correct'

Although the dictionaries I cited earlier focus their definitions of politically correct on the idiomatic sense of avoiding unjust or inoffensive language—or the derivative notion of being excessively concerned with such avoidance—it seems to me that popular usage has left that narrow sense of the phrase far behind. In particular, I've noticed three developments in usage that I think render the older understanding of the term antiquated.

First, insisting on tying politically correct to efforts to redress historical injustice or to combat inappropriately loaded language fails to note widespread use of the term as a broad-brush synonym for identifiably liberal political policies of any kind. As an example, consider this discussion of European Union policy toward hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) in Tom Shepstone, "EU Warms to Fracking, NY Colder Than Ever?" a blog post at OilPro.com (posted on February 27, 2014):

The experience of the EU, especially Germany, indicates its politically correct move to renewables was too much too soon. Fracking is now the only way back.

Although the word fracking has drawn some criticism from pro-hydraulic fracturing interests, the term isn’t under suspicion in liberal/progressive/radical left-wing circles for promoting sexism or historical injustice in the language. Consequently, the author here must be using politically correct not to describe someone who is preoccupied with those things, but to describe someone whose political views the author means to reduce to something like "predictable, ill-conceived, knee-jerk liberal orthodoxy"—a conclusion arrived at by reasoning that opposition to hydraulic fracture technology is strongest among environmentalists, who are broadly conceived of as being allied with pro-government liberalism and opposed to pro-business conservatism.

Second, as I noted earlier, nothing in the wording “politically correct,” interpreted objectively, prevents it from being used in the sense of "predictable, ill-conceived, knee-jerk conservative orthodoxy" or—more generally—"predictable, ill-conceived, knee-jerk political orthodoxy of any stripe." And not surprisingly, as the level of contemptuous use of the term has grown, so has the interest of people at whom it was initially aimed in redirecting it at their political opponents.

Thus, sticking with the topic of fracking for the moment, we have this comment from the blog post, “California Conservation: Fracking Gone Wild!” in ProjectCamelotPortal.com (September 11, 2014):

Corporate oil and gas cleverness convinced government bureaucrats to start using a politically correct and most deceptive 'doublespeak' power term for oil shale and gas shale production called "Well Stimulation," which upon review quickly translates into something more like "Fracking Gone Wild."

To similar effect is this headline at RawStory.com:

Noam Chomsky: Corporations, not leftist academics, enforce politically correct limits on speech

To this point (June 2015), it seems clear that the vast majority of derisive users of politically correct employ it to caricature and dismiss the views of political liberals. But the number of instances where users employ it to caricature and dismiss the views of political conservatives is growing—and I expect that trend to continue.

Third, although it has gone largely unnoticed by dictionaries, the tendency to use politically correct as a synonym for "politically expedient" seems to be widespread in some quarters. This usage is not exactly flattering, but it lacks the corrosive edge of usage in the sense of "pie-in-the-sky liberal [or conservative]." Here is an example, from a speech by Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, in "Proceedings in the Senate" (November 16, 2004):

He [retiring Senator Hollings of South Carolina] has been a champion for racial fairness his entire time [in politics]. It is fashionable now. It is the politically correct thing to do now. But in 1963 it was not the politically correct thing to do in South Carolina or any other southern State. But he chose the path less traveled. Our State is better off for it, and because of his leadership [as governor from 1959 to 1963] and others who followed, we were able to do things in South Carolina in a way of which we should all be proud. Hats off to you for that, Senator HOLLINGS.

Graham’s phrase "politically correct" here means "politically expedient," and his praise for Hollings’s record as a southern politician is specifically grounded on the idea that Hollings supported racial fairness at a time when it was not politically expedient for a white politician in the South to support it.


Dictionaries treat politically correct as if its meaning emerged mature and fully formed from the head of Logos in the early 1980s (or maybe in the 1930s). In fact, though, the phrase has been in use for centuries, and never went out of use. What changed about it was the sense of what it meant. Justice Wilson’s use of politically correct in 1793 conveyed an idea along the lines of "consistent with the political genius of our nation." Subsequent occurrences in the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s emphasized the phrase’s sense of "politically wise" or "politically appropriate."

By the 1920s, left-wing writers—especially those in the orbit of the Communist Party—had begun using politically correct in the sense of "politically approved (by the party)." The most significant thing about this usage was that it existed in a purely and openly relativistic milieu—an action taken in response to certain local or national conditions could be "politically correct" today (simply because the party approved of it) but politically incorrect tomorrow (simply because the party, for whatever reason, changed its mind).

For some reason, the U.S. radical left of the 1960s and 1970s, though generally contemptuous of the Communist Party, latched onto politically correct as a suitable term to describe views of society and culture that everyone within their particular collective should embrace. The term seems to have extended from there to cover early assessments of how language should be purged of regressive or status-quo-supporting terminology and linguistic forms; and a few years after that (in the early 1980s), the populace at large became aware of the project. Dictionary definitions of politically correct in this narrow sense began to appear within the next decade.

Non-ironical usage of the phrase soon attracted mocking usage; and in the past two decades, the phrase has broadened further—first to refer disapprovingly to liberal political views on any subject, and then to refer disapprovingly to orthodox political views of any shade that the speaker or writer happens to dislike. A further development is the use of politically correct to signify "politically expedient," implying (as seems true enough) that the path of popular orthodoxy within whatever group you find yourself is the path of least political risk.

At least in the near term, politically correct and political correctness seem unlikely to regain their earlier status as politically admirable or aspirational ideas. The sense of the phrases as describing something discredited and reflexive and half-oblivious to reason is very strong now, but it will be interesting to see what develops from further jostling between the meanings "knee-jerk orthodoxy," "political expediency," and (among the remaining true believers) "doorway to a more just world."

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    Thanks for visiting this old question of mine. Very good and detailed story of the usage of this expression.
    – user66974
    Jun 26, 2015 at 7:40
  • An opinion piece by Ross Douthat in today's New York Times alludes to the conceptually similar notion of "ideological correctness": "To choose internal subversion instead, Damon Linker complained in The Week, is to basically decide that if a conservative president is 'an ideological heretic,' a non-Reaganite, he doesn't get to govern on the agenda he put before the voters—which makes True Conservative ideological correctness 'more important than honoring the outcome of a democratic election.'" Evidently, Douthat can't quite bring himself to say "True Conservative political correctness."
    – Sven Yargs
    Sep 10, 2018 at 0:07

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.


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.

  • This answer is not compatible with that given by medica ('in line with prevailing political thought or policy'). Apr 6, 2014 at 15:20
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    @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". Apr 6, 2014 at 16:14
  • '[H]aving no implication of a political stance' and 'in line with prevailing political thought or policy' are diametrically opposite. Apr 6, 2014 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." Apr 6, 2014 at 19:10

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.


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.

  • 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, 2014 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. Apr 6, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 at 20:56

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