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You can call it "politically correct," if you like

“Politically correct” comes accompanied with a sneer, directed at weak-minded liberals who pander to every minority group imaginable by adopting whatever ridiculous euphemism is fashionable at the moment. (Those who use the term should feel free to comment if I have misconstrued the connotations.)

The subject came up in a Language Log post last week on the politics of prescriptivism. A reader commenting as Andrew B. pushed the discussion in this direction:

[T]he left's form of prescriptivism is as strong or stronger than the right's, and it certainly has more cultural cachet, or oompahpah, as you called it. It's popularly known as "political correctness" and occurs any time a conservative says anything that is then accused of being racist or "hate-filled." While I abhor racism, the statements in question can be harmless, and the liberal writers who accuse face no consequences for being wrong. I'm thinking of Paul Krugman's column "Climate of Hate," or Frank Rich's new column in which somehow the marxist Lee Harvey Oswald becomes a product of the right wing. Or Bill Maher's "denying racism is the new racism."

You tell me which I should be more concerned about, the right's qualms over dis/uninterested, or the fact that I cannot open my mouth in some liberal circles without being a "racist" producing a "climate of hate" that could cause death and murder. To reiterate, your Tory says language produces uncleanliness. These writers say mine produces murder.

I’m going to explore political correctitude in a moment, but first I want to look at this comment and another by Andrew B. by way of introduction. Racist language used to be commonplace and clear-cut. People used to say things on the floor of the United States Senate that would make you shudder today. They make you shudder because overt racism has become as socially unacceptable as advocacy of slavery. It’s gauche. But it would be naive to imagine that racism has vanished merely because it is no longer public and explicit.

So while one should hesitate to call someone a racist, one has to be able to say that a statement sounds racist, whether it is knowingly or unknowingly so. Take uppity. A few years ago Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia described Barack and Michelle Obama as uppity, saying in the minor uproar that ensued that he had grown up unaware—in Georgia (!)—that the word had racist overtones. And a week ago Rush Limbaugh used the same term to characterize Ms. Obama. It may well be that people in their twenties and thirties who came to adulthood in the post-civil-rights era are unaware of the ugly history of the word, but Mr. Limbaugh can hardly claim innocence.

Andrew B. has a further comment in the discussion that merits examination:

I ran into a group of friends discussing the sexuality of another friend, whether he was gay/bisexual etc. Without any hint of malice I said he was "queer." It seemed to be the only word left that could describe this friend of ours, without more information. My use of the word was met with silent glaring, broken by a friend replying only with "You can't say that."

There is a very good reason for Andrew B. not to talk that way, and it has nothing to do with any left-wing totalitarian political correctitude. It has to do with common courtesy.

We know, or should know, that members of a group are free to talk within that group in ways that outsiders may not. We learn that from the family unit, in which the members may say all manner of cruel things to one another but join ranks to oppose any insult from the outside. African-Americans often use racist terms among themselves that I as an aging white guy had better not. (And if you should utter some slur against people from Appalachia, you may well get a glare from me.)

In Andrew B.’s example, he might have known that queer from heterosexuals is a slur that some homosexuals have adopted to take the sting out. The friend who advises him not to talk that way is not disparaging him because he is a self-professed conservative, but because he is socially awkward.

It falls to me as an editor and keeper of my newspaper’s stylebook to rule on whether language is acceptable for publication, because the goal of the publication is to be factually accurate and clear without wantonly offending readers. (That’s why we’re prissier about swearing in the publication than we are in the newsroom.) There are perfectly acceptable principles behind what is dismissed as political correctitude:

Item: We call people by the terms by which they identify themselves, aware that these terms are mutable. Think of Negro, black, African-American. Think how long many newspapers resisted gay for homosexual until it became embedded in common speech and writing.

Item: We avoid language that is gratuitously insulting, or describes groups of people as less than fully human. Retarded, once a classificatory term, has become an insult to be avoided in describing either an individual or a class of people. Ethnic slurs also fall into this category.

Item: We resist precious euphemism. While we no longer use crippled, we’re not about to swing over to differently abled. People who have handicaps or disabilities can be called handicapped or disabled. We get some pushback over those terms, but unless they happen to become fully pejorative, we will continue with them.

Item: We try to stick with neutral, factual language. Illegal immigrants are people—not aliens—who violated civil law by entering this country. Calling them undocumented is an apologetic term used by their advocates. We don’t say confined to a wheelchair. Polio patients in iron lungs were confined, but people who use wheelchairs achieve a degree of mobility.

A decade or so ago the Los Angeles Times revised its stylebook along these lines and was widely criticized for political correctitude. That’s fine. Call those of us on stylebook enforcement wimpy liberals as much as you like. Political discourse in this country has always been robust, to say the least, and no one in this business intends to fetter your political expression.


Today’s background music for blogging: Handel’s violin sonatas, with Andrew Manze, violin and Richard Egarr, harpsichord.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 AM | | Comments (12)


Thank you, sir, for this fine post.

It is easier to dismiss expectations of good manners if you call being polite "political correctness." Apparently the right to be rude is not one we should expect people to forego. When I was growing up it was considered a great compliment when parents were told their children were well-mannered. I suspect that would almost be considered an insult now.

And, Becky, if the child was called Emma Sullivan rudeness is apparently constitutionally hallowed.

Meanwhile, Mr McIntyre, have you come to a conclusion as to whether the utterly justified prescriptivism you describe (which we may call political correctness if we like) is utterly justified prescriptivism or something entirely different?

Whether one disparages those practices as political correctness or embraces them, they are eminently justifiable editorial practices for publications. Apart from publishing, they amount to common courtesy and might well be acceptable anywhere common courtesy is valued and practiced.

These days most "PC" Canadians holding official government/ political office seem to favor the term First Nations Peoples referring to our indigenous, aboriginal/ native population, rather than "Indians", which appears to be the common label-of-choice used by most non-native, average Canucks. (Interestingly, the Métis---French/ Native Canadian mixed ancestry--- and the Arctic Inuits of our fine Dominion don't officially fall under the aegis of First Nations Peoples.)

Of course, the appellation, "Indian" is a complete misnomer, first promulgated back in the 15th-century era of early New World exploration spearheaded by Christopher Columbus and his motley maritime minions, when these avaricious, yet admittedly courageous seafaring Europeans were searching for the East Indies w/ their lure of exotic, and valuable natural resources. These first-contact European explorers, thinking they had discovered the evidence of a trade route to India, naturally called the indigenous populations they first encountered, "indios". The rest, as they say, is (bad) history.

At art school back in early the '70s in my hometown of Toronto, I had a few Native Canadian classmates, and made sure I identified them by their tribal affiliation, and never referred to them, at least to their faces, as 'injuns'.

The late Clifford Miracle was one of my closest buddies---- a full-blooded, proud Mohawk who spent his formative years on the 'rez' in Brantford, Ontario. Cliff gained some early national notoriety after graduating from The Ontario College of Art for his painting, printmaking, and sculpture, w/ Canada's National Gallery in Ottawa purchasing a couple of his neo-Fauvist figurative canvases for it's permanent collection. Sadly, he had an untimely death, barely into his 50s. But I digress.

Moving on----- Those folk who have to deal w/ bodily disabilities, be it paralysis, blindness, limb amputation(s), multiple sclerosis, ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), Parkinson's and the like, often opt for the term "physically-challenged".

Call me old fashioned, but I prefer to-call-a-spade-a-spade. The label "physically- challenged" comes off as one of those all-encompassing 'politically correct'- sounding designations that may conveniently cover a whole gamut of 'ailments', yet doesn't really deal directly w/ the specific condition at hand. I grant you, today the term "crippled" is definitely an anachronism, and justly so, in my view.

I believe the term "little people" is regarded as mildly offensive to many 'height-challenged' folks, who have congenital dwarfism---either the most common "adrondroplasia" (disproportionate), or the much rarer "midget" (proportionate) forms of the condition.

And yet one of the more popular cable TV reality shows, of late, has been TLC's "Little People, Big World", which follows the daily/ weekly ups & downs of husband and wife, Matt and Amy Roloff ( four-foot tall dwarfs) who are raising two (so-called) normal-statured kids (a teenage boy and girl), plus one son who has dwarfism, yet seems to thrive despite his being diminutive.

In my mind, "little people" immediately conjures up characters from Swift's "Gulliver's Travels", or Tolkien's "The Hobbit". Or those elusive Irish sprites, the leprechauns.

"Little people" kinda comes off as more PC than the term "dwarf", which is technically/ morphologically accurate, but perhaps has too much of a clinical, matter-of-fact ring to it.

As regards to Andrew B.'s use of the word "queer" in describing his "gay/ bisexual" friend, it seems a tad misappropriated, in that if his friend is allegedly exploring both sides of 'the sexual playing field', so to speak, then technically his friend wouldn't strictly qualify as exclusively gay, and therefore "queer" in his sexual orientation. (Maybe I'm quibbling a little here?)

At any rate, w/ popular TV shows featuring largely gay, often boldly explicit themes, and openly-gay lead characters like "Queer As Folk", The "L" Word, "Will & Grace", and reality TV's fashion-themed "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy", it appears that the word "queer" has been widely accepted into the pop-culture lexicon, and even within the greater society where it has lost much of its earlier emotionally-charged, offensive sting.

The word "fag" *, however, still retains a discounting, dissing air about it, particularly directed toward a homosexual man by a heterosexual guy. Hardly very PC, whatever your party affiliation..........or sexual orientation, for that matter.

Yet not unlike the benign "N"-word exchange between say two Black friends, "fag" might have the same slightly endearing, or jocular implication if shared between two gay friends, as mere inoffensive subcultural jargon.

And so it goes.

* As our loyal London correspondent, Picky, will surely vouch, "fag" has a whole other meaning to most Brits-----an enduring slang term for a cigarette, of course.


Excellent distinctions to work from - thank you, John.

I'd like to repeat my disagreement with the basic premise, raised by Andrew in the LL post, that editing is in some way an entirely political act, and that making distinctions is the province of the conservative while uncritically embracing neologism is the province of the liberal. It's not true. Left-wing newspapers have subeditors too, and we're just as careful about the distinction between 'disinterested' and 'uninterested' as anyone else.

Precision, and therefore prescriptiveness, is important to all editors, left and right, because of the constraints under which we work. But that means that, just as we take care to avoid or remove casual racism and homophobia, we also take pains with, say, the sometimes-arcane nomenclature of British regiments when deaths or injuries are reported from Afghanistan. It's a matter, as you say, of showing courtesy and respect to all, and maintaining a certain standard in public discourse.

To the extent that this is 'political correctness', to an editor's mind the emphasis is much more on the 'correct' than the 'political'.

Item: Editors are not superfluous.
Yesterday morning, I read a story on titled "Jipped Apple Co-Founder's Contract to be Auctioned." I was fascinated by the back-formation of a new word, as well as the apparent unfamiliarity with the actual word's racist origins. Several people had commented with varying degrees of scathation (to coin another word - I think I like that one), and I emailed the powers that read email, and in the evening, I noticed that the word jipped has been replaced with "Third."

When I was making these kinds of judgment calls for a newspaper, I remember getting prods from the "people first" people, who announced that it is demeaning to say "autistic child" because the child should come first, not the condition. The respectful term was supposed to be "child with autism." I never understood this reasoning. In fact, I think it's odd to promote the condition to noun status -- another substantive, equal to "child" -- instead of leaving it as a mere adjective, modifying the child.

Often I tried to settle murky issues by finding a parallel example that happens to have a much clearer solution. For instance, is it "woman doctor" or "female doctor"? Both sound plausible. But since we would never say "man doctor" or "man nurse" or "man teacher," suddenly "woman doctor" loses its viability. (The ur-example of how to refer to female doctors, for me, is the theme of "Petticoat Junction" after Bea Benaderet died and June Lockhart stepped in: "There's a lady M.D., she's as pretty as can be, at the Junction ...")

With regard to "child with autism," I looked at other conditions and saw that I would feel foolish insisting on "a woman with blindness" instead of "a blind woman."

If there is a normal adjectival form, I don't see the insult in using it, though I resist lazily using nouns as if they were adjectives: I'm nearly as uncomfortable with "she has a Down's syndrome baby" as I am with "she's a lung cancer woman." (But then, why does "she's a lung cancer patient" sound more acceptable? What a minefield.)

The people-first nuance that I did embrace is the idea of not reducing the person to nothing but the illness/condition: "This table is reserved for the blind and the handicapped."

Dear Prof. McI.,

Please, please allow me to share this little off-topic, just-off-the-presses news nugget. (Actually I stumbled on this odd anecdotal gem while perusing my Yahoo! home page earlier this fine December 1st morn.)

Headline should read: "Dog shoots man!"

Apparently, this past weekend a hapless duck hunter from Brigham City, Utah was accidently shot in his posterior from his own dingy by his own bird-dog, while setting out duck decoys.

Sources report that the shot gun pellets (27 in all), could have done much more serious damage to the man's backside than they did, if he hadn't been wearing his Ducks Unlimited brand* rubberized hip waders.

The moral of this embarrassing tale: Never, never leave a loaded firearm on your boat w/ a trigger-happy pooch. Clearly just an accident waiting to happen.

The upshot of this story is that the wounded hunter was hospitalized after frantically calling 911, and is thankfully making a full recovery. Even though he has a lot of 'spainin' to do back home. "Shot by your own dog? What the $%*#@&! -?

The crack-shot (don't go there HA!) canine was apparently frisked, interrogated at some length by local authorities, and eventually released on its own recognizance. A dog-of-few-words, his parting retort as he ambled out of the local police station was, "Woof, woof, yip, yip." Scooby-doo would surely be proud.

All-in-all, a pretty slow news day in good old Brigham City, Utah.

Guess there were no tantalizing local Osmonds news items that day, Oh well.

"And they called it puppy love."-------shout out to Donny O.

*The Ducks Unlimited bit w/ the hip waders, I just made up------ a bold-faced plug for a very decent, well-meaning organization............. even though they're pro-duck hunting and I'm a diehard birder. Yes, surprisingly to many, the two constituencies can, and do coexist. And the North American waterfowl populations are generally better off for all their efforts over many years at conservation, and hunter education. But i digress.


I grew up in Georgia (from birth through college) and am in my late 20's, and I never witnessed or thought of the word "uppity" as being racist or racial or negative in any way. Maybe I just never thought about it, but I certainly don't remember it ever causing any ruckus or being frowned upon in my experience. (Maybe that's because it used to be so frowned upon that you hardly ever hear it anymore!)

Working for an e-mail newsletter company that generally follows AP but partners with associations for scores of specific audiences, we make lots of newsletter-specific style modifications. Some are just a nod to the audience: "FDA" and "CDC" don't really need to spelled out in newsletters going strictly to pharma/medical people.
But the "female leader" and "autistic child" mentions by Brian above are very interesting, because our relevant partners are extremely insistent on taking the opposite approach: No adjectives are in front of "child," with a couple of minor exceptions, and no one is a "female" anything.
Some of this is assuredly political correctness, while some of it is a nod to the audience nomenclature, and some of it is just so we can pick one and stop being confused about it. Absent the outright slurs, I suspect there's a lot more gray areas -- and thus need for editors and inevitable disagreement -- once you get into specific examples.

Does the LA Times really refer to shoplifters as "non-traditional shoppers" and illegal immigrants as "non-traditional immigrants"? I heard that was the case and, if so, is just pathetic.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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