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Why Do We Say That?

May 2024
2min read


Politically Correct has been one of the most inflammatory catch phrases of our time and also one of the most resilient. Popularized in the 1970s and the 1980s by the left, the phrase was essentially co-opted by conservatives in the 1990s. Liberal activists initially employed politically correct as a positive standard in debates on sexual, racial, ethnic, cultural, and environmental issues. For example, Toni Cade Bambara declared in an essay in The Black Woman , an anthology she edited in 1970, “A man cannot be politically correct and a chauvinist, too.”

To be politically incorrect in activist circles came to invite the severest possible criticism. For instance, some 20 men and women filed a sexual-harassment complaint against a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1990 after they claimed he straight-facedly suggested that in the interest of political correctness Penthouse magazine’s centerfold “Pets” should be called animal companions .

Overreactions of this sort gave conservatives the opportunity to turn politically correct back upon the original users. People who write indignant letters to the editors of newspapers seem to be especially fond of this tactic. A couple of recent examples: “I read where Disneyland is caving in to the political correct crowd—again—this time by removing guns from skippers on the Jungle Cruise.” (Los Angeles Times , September 9, 2001) “Sir, included with my copy of The Times today was a very nice Christmas card from my ‘paper person.’ Since a girl’s name had been given I assume the person is in fact a paper girl, but I cannot help wondering what politically correct influences have prevented her from using that term.” ( Times of London, December 21, 2002)

The origins of politically correct—P.C. for short—are murky. Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book (1966), which includes many references to “correct” and “incorrect” ideas (at least in the English translation), may have helped popularize the phrase. It predates Mao, however.

Howard M. Ziff said in a 1991 letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education that he remembered hearing politically correct being used by “Marxists and progressives” in the early 1950s as a euphemism for party line . (By the by, party line pre-dates the Old Left, and Lenin, too, for that matter. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, of Missouri, used it in a political context as long ago as 1834.) And Vladimir Nabokov employed the phrase in his 1947 novel Bend Sinister . ”… it is better for a man to have belonged to a politically incorrect organization than not to have belonged to any organization at all.”

Politically correct also appears—and in a modern sense, referring to proper use of language—in H. V. Morton’s In the Steps of St. Paul (1936). Discussing St. Paul’s reasons for addressing his converts as “Galatians,” Morton points out that “Phrygia was famous for its slaves—so famous that the name Phryx denoted a slave all over the Empire—and Lycaonia was notorious for bandits and thieves. To use such words [Phrygians and Lycaonians] would have been equivalent to calling his audience ‘slaves and robbers.’ But ‘Galatians,’ a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule.”

By far the oldest-known example of politically correct in writing comes from a 1793 decision of the United States Supreme Court, Chisholm v. Georgia . Fred R. Shapiro, librarian and lecturer at Yale Law School, reported in the Autumn 2002 issue of Verbatim that a search of legal databases enabled him to find the phrase in an opinion by Justice James Wilson. Again the context involved the proper use of language:

“The states, rather than the people , for whose sakes states exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention. … Sentiments and expression 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 .”

So the question becomes: Does the current use of politically correct build directly upon past usage, or has the phrase been coined independently one or more times? The lack of written examples throughout the nineteenth century makes one suspect the latter. From 1793 to 1936 is a long time for a word or phrase to exist without leaving a paper trail. But etymology has something in co’mmon with paleontology. A new example—a new bone—may be unearthed at any time, and then old theories about lines of descent may have to be revised.

—Hugh Rawson

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