I created a time line with one entry that read "Cortez conquered the Aztecs" for the date 1519. My instructor was very angry I wrote this, and said it is not politically correct to say "conquered". I think this is a correct statement, and fact, so how is it offensive? What is the reason such a way of writing is not politically correct?

  • 16
    Did you not ask your instructor what term they would prefer you to use?
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 4:08
  • I tried to research but couldn't really find anything. Some might object to using a warlike word like conquer in a non-military context like taking a "divide and conquer" approaches to a problem. But this is literally about conquest. Maybe it's a misapprehension distorted from the desire to avoid violent military metaphors (which might disturb victims of war or perhaps even be thought to encourage violence) in non-military contexts. (And technically it wasn't just Cortez and his men who conquered the Aztecs, a lot of native tribes helped because they all hated the brutal, tyrannous Aztecs.)
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 13 at 12:58

2 Answers 2


Your instructor is wrong to suggest that 'conquered' is politically incorrect. The primary meaning of conquer remains to overcome or take control of somewhere, something or someone by military force. The Cambridge dictionary even uses the Spanish conquest of the New World as an example phrase (as at 05 Aug 2020).

To say that "Cortez conquered the Aztecs" is a short way of saying that he overcame them by military force. It does not imply any lack of respect on the part of the author, nor that the 'conquest' was a good or bad thing.

Successfully, and usually happily, overcoming an inanimate or abstract obstacle is a slightly hyperbolic derivation from this, but has not replaced the original meaning, nor has it automatically conferred positive connotations to the military sense.

For example, it is possible to say both "German forces conquered France in 1940" and "Allied forces conquered Germany in 1945" without implying that either was good or bad.

The one grey area in your particular example is that Cortez didn't really 'conquer' the Aztecs in 1519: he began his campaign against them in 1519, but did not overthrow the Aztec empire until 1521. To imply that he 'conquered' the Aztecs with less resistance than in reality might, possibly, be seen as disrespectful. Perhaps this is what your instructor meant.

  • 3
    It's a good point you made, that the Aztec empire wasn't destroyed immediately. In this sense, the very fact that its conquest took a great deal of effort (and conniving and foul play) is a monument to its greatness.
    – Conrado
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 13:33
  • And technically, most of the troops Cortez used were natives, not European. The Totonacs and other local groups hated the Aztecs and played important roles in destroying the Aztec empire. Some of them received rewards after the defeat of the Aztecs. But this doesn't relate to the word Conquer, just the ascription of the conquest to Cortez.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jan 13 at 13:04

I believe your instructor is correct. The meaning of words change over time, and what was once acceptable may not be any longer. With that said, conquer, historically, would have been the correct word to use, but no more. That's because the word conquer when used on people has ethnocentric connotations, it is essentially choosing to relate the information on the side of the murderers (since that is what colonizers are generally accepted to be these days).

That is because the word conquer now means to overcome, in specific it's to overcome an obstacle of immense issue. That's why people will say they conquered a mountain, or a musician has conquered the world, which is hyperbole anyway. By using the word to describe people as having been "conquered" its lowering them from the status and respect they deserve as a human to that of an inanimate object, not that the earth is inanimate, but in that quote that is the implication. That's why it's not correct to use the word conquer when referring to people and societies.

  • 5
    Nazi Germany was a considerable foe, and not at all inanimate, yet the Allies conquered them. Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 5:57
  • 2
    As an expatriate, I take issue with colonizers "generally being accepted as murderers". I have never heard anyone but Evo Morales make such a blanket statement about foreign colonies. Also, can you back up your statement that "conquer" has ethnocentric connotations?
    – Conrado
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 13:29
  • 3
    This explanation is at odds with the dictionary definition of the word. Do you have any references supporting your view?
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 14:09
  • 3
    So what word should we use instead of "conquer"? If you think a certain word shouldn't be used anymore you should at least provide us with an alternative. Commented Aug 5, 2020 at 22:54

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.