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Political Correctness

Our gender, the colour of our skin, our occupations, the way we look, the very language and terms we learn - these all play a part in forming our identity. In recent years, there has been an attempt to change the words we use to describe ourselves and others, as these terms contain assumptions, attitudes and prejudices that people unconsciously take on board. Below, there is an article about Political Correctness – the ideas behind it, its history and examples of PC language.

If you have not done so already, you may wish to try out our Politically Correct Quiz first, to see how much you know about the topic.

Before Reading

What are the opposites of the following male words?

master / bachelor / governor

Are the meanings of the female words as positive as the male words? Why do you think this is? Click here for some suggested answers:

As you read

Find out what is ‘wrong’ with the following sentence:

If someone buys this car, he will be getting a bargain.


PC or not PC: that is the Question?

By Adam Dalton

With the break up of the British Empire, the advent of feminism and class distinctions becoming more ‘blurred’, the culture that informed the English language effectively changed. The changing culture and new political climate demanded changes in the English language itself, such changes coming to be known as Political Correctness. Britain’s new place in the global village, as a democratic, peace-keeping country must now be reflected in its language. Let’s look at some examples of political change in the language and its usage.

If a man is introduced as Mr-so-and-so, you do not know if he is married, and why would you want to know? But if a woman is introduced as Mrs-this or Miss-that, you are in no doubt as to her marital status and possible ‘availability’. It is out-of-date (to put it politely) to expect a woman to automatically accept such a position when joining the society of a social situation. Gone are the times when a man’s position should automatically be privileged and enforced by the language of introduction we use: now, it is politically correct (‘PC’) to address a woman as Ms, unless at her specific request.

Once you recognise how language innately enforces, endorses and seeks to justify the exploitation of women by men, you might begin to question how the very term ‘woman’ conditions us: why is a woman considered a ‘wo+man’. Why does our essence, the thing we all share have to be labelled ‘man’? Some men would claim to have a monopoly on or be an authority on man-ness just because they are men. Some now write wimmin (although my very male spell-check is trying to stop me) instead of women to avoid the insidious use of ‘man’. The formations ‘he’ and ‘his’ have a similar dominant presence in the English language: ‘her’, ‘she’, ‘they’, ‘their’, ‘history, etc. Some have suggested using ‘per’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’.

And it goes beyond the positioning of the sexes. Embedded in the English language are terms that originate from, help build and perpetuate all sorts of historical power structures and relationships. Take race. When a white person is ill, they look green, when angry red, when cold blue, when tired grey and when rich tanned. So why was it in the 70s and 80s in Britain that black people were so often called ‘coloured’? Surely whites are more worthy of the term, in its most colourful sense. And why ‘black’? Why ‘white’? There is no such thing as ‘black’. What some British call black, other nationalities would call white. Arab Egyptians call themselves white, and because of the country’s colonial history the ‘white’ label confers a high social status. Should white, Western history be allowed to dominate today’s society? Let’s look at black history and herstory for a change or to balance out past injustices.

So, black is not an accurate term, and nor is white. A black American might call themselves Afro-American and a black Briton might call themselves Afro-Saxon, but some ‘black Americans’ would not want to be differentiated from other ‘Americans’. When someone’s nationality is described, you should not automatically have the privilege of knowing their ‘colour’, just as we should not automatically expect to know if a woman is married or not.

And there are other prejudices and pre-judgements built into the English language. What do you mean when you call someone ‘short’? Do you mean 1.5m, 1.6m or some other height? What you really mean is ‘they are shorter than you and me’. There is no such thing as ‘short’, there is only ‘shorter’. Some have tried to use ‘vertically-challenged’ as PC, but the challenge implies some difficulty or inadequacy about being short (definitely not a PC thing to suggest). And anyway, taken too far, PC terms start to obscure meaning, introduce ambiguity and hide meaning. After all, vertically-challenged could refer to someone who is so drunk that they can’t stand up straight. As so}eone who is probably shorter than you, I take exception to being associated with this inebriated character, particularly as I can usually hold more drink than ‘tall’ people.

Why would this be of any interest to those of any other country? Well, the principles behind political correctness are those that many countries claim to aspire to. We say that we want a language and political discourse that does not exclude people and is not loaded against certain groups. Terms of subtle prejudice need to be replaced by more democratic terms, terms that actually empower people. English is not the only European language that could become more politically correct. Many European languages give nouns a gender, and an analysis of these nouns proves 'interesting' (though not consistently loaded perhaps). For example, in Polish, words like ‘emotion’ and ‘economy’ are female and terms like ‘car’ and ‘business’ are predictably male. I currently teach English to Polish students, and when they translate from Polish into English, they frequently say something like, ‘If someone goes to the post office, he can buy a stamp’ (‘someone’ is a male term in Polish). Teaching ‘they’ as the currently accepted norm is but the first step.

Post reading task

Can you suggest more PC terms for the following?

disabled / person / policeman / headmaster / waitress

For some suggested answers, click here

If you have not done so already, you might now like to try our Politically Correct Quiz, to test what you have learnt:

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