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Monday, October 10, 2016

On the use of the history (and use) of the term "Political Correctness"

"Historical development of the terms Political Correctness and Political Correct (sic)

According to Cameron (Greil 1998:7) the term political correctness as a noun first appeared in the eighties in the course of the debate about Political Correctness in the USA, especially on the American Universities. Until then the adjective politically correct was mainly used. The distinction of those terms is of importance since it reveals the development of an adjective that expresses and judges the behaviour of an individual or a group to a noun that refers to an existing phenomenon. Political Correctness is perceived by the American public as a movement and a social phenomenon located on university campuses and political or cultural institutions such as feminist, racist or leftist organizations.

The term “politically incorrect" was suggested to have derived from Marxist- Leninist vocabulary in order to describe the appropriate party line commonly referred to as the “correct line”. According to Perry (Cameron 1995: 126) the phrase was adopted from the translation of Mao Tse —Tung's Red Book. Regardless of the different sources the term politically correct can in this context be understood as conformity to official policy.

In the late sixties and seventies the term was taken up again in the course of reform and Civil Rights movements by American New Left activists, Afro-Americans and feminist groups. It was also understood as insider expression with the function to satirize the group’s own tendency towards humourless, rigid and orthodox Right party line. The term was therefore often used with a sarcastic and an ironic meaning by Lefts while conservative opponents of PC used it with a pejorative connotation.

During the late eighties, the term political correctness and his keywords have according to Cameron (1995) underlain a discursive drift meaning that it begins to drift away from its earlier meaning since it has been taken up in the mass media. At the beginning debate in the USA around 1987 the term was used in connection with particular issues concerning university curricula, speech codes and affirmative actions. However, it was brought up in the media rather detached from its present context and thus the public developed a very general idea of the term political correctness. While those political groups who were directly engaged in the debate related concrete ideas, objectives and measures like speech regulations to the issue, large parts of the public who were not actively involved in the debate related the term rather to the creation of neologisms whose meaning has to be concluded from the context.

Consequently, the term has due to the process of discursive drift and the massive public perception of the phenomenon developed to a catchword or slogan attracting public and media attention and which can be used in nearly every context.


It is nearly impossible to give an exact definition of the terms “political correctness" and its adjective “politically correct” since they were and are still used in many different contexts and as it had been already explained in the previous chapter it had been subject to discursive drift.

However, there is no doubt that political correctness refers to 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 in schools and universities. The reformation of language is within the political correctness debate the central topic with the aim to undermine sexist or racist expressions either by speech codes or by replacing words, which are on the index, by new ones.

Consequently, a number of neologisms have developed that are simply grotesque or have the aim to provoke. By changing the term history into herstory feminists try to draw attention to the under -representation of women in the history (Schenz 1994:25). Another purpose of the movement is the construction of educational curricula, in which the traditional idea of cultural heritage being determined by “dead white males” is replaced by putting the emphasis on non- western, non-white and female contribution. In addition, these curricula recommend the kind of language which is appropriate to use when talking about gender and racial differences.

Political Correctness has above all the aim to regulate language and behaviour in order to prevent minorities from discrimination, to reduce prejudices and take the cultural diversity and heterogeneity of the American society into consideration."

--- Political Correctness in the English Language (Seminar Paper) / Thuy Nguyen
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