LINGUIST List 7.879

Wed Jun 12 1996

Disc: Politically correct

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  • Mark Mandel, "politically correct"
  • "James T. Myers", "PC" summary (1996 version)

    Message 1: "politically correct"

    Date: Mon, 10 Jun 1996 12:02:08 CDT
    From: Mark Mandel <>
    Subject: "politically correct"
    Dennis Baron writes:

    >>>>>>>>>>> Jesse Sheidlower writes: Fred Shapiro of the Yale Law Library, who's the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of American Legal Quotations and a top quotation researcher, has called my attention to this 1793 (!) example. The use refers to linguistic etiquette, and is quite close to the modern use. This is from the Supreme Court decision _Chisholm v. Georgia_:

    "The states, rather than the People, for whose sakes the States exist, are frequently the objects which attract and arrest our principal attention....Sentiments and expressions 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."

    [Nabokov quotation deleted -- MAM]

    earliest cite:

    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 would have been equivalent to calling his audience "slaves and robbers." But "Galatians," a term that was politically correct, embraced everyone under Roman rule, from the aristocrat in Antioch to the little slave girl in Iconium.

    [H. V. Morton, In the Steps of St. Paul (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1936), p. 244.] <<<<<<<<<<<

    I do not think that these two quotations use the phrase "politically correct" in the sense under discussion. Both deal with the appropriateness of referring to a particular _political_ entity in a given context. Here the word "political" is not so close to the modern use (referring to matters of social policy) as to its origin in the Greek "polis" 'city-state' (thus "nation", when applied in the contexts of the Roman Empire and the early USA).

    I paraphrase the Supreme Court's meaning in using "politically correct" as

    This nation consists essentially of the People, not the States that they have created as their servants.

    and Morton's [insofar as I can infer from only the passage given] as

    While the members of the audience may have come from Phrygia and Lycaonia, so that addressing them as "Phrygians and Lycaonians" would have been denotatively accurate, they were also all members of the political (geographical?) class called "Galatians", which was therefore also denotatively accurate (as well as being connotatively inoffensive).

    In the absence of unambiguous support from other sources, we should reject the modern idiomatic reading of the phrase in favor of the analytic reading. I see no evidence here requiring us to take the whole as anything but the sum of its parts: in these passages, the expression "term T is politically correct" means no more than "term T refers accurately to political entities".

    Mark A. Mandel : Dragon Systems, Inc. : speech recognition : +1 617 965-5200 320 Nevada St., Newton, MA 02160, USA :

    Message 2: "PC" summary (1996 version)

    Date: Tue, 11 Jun 1996 09:35:39 +0800
    From: "James T. Myers" <>
    Subject: "PC" summary (1996 version)
    As I suspected, the origin of "PC" has been discussed before (including, apparently, on this list, in 1994). I will only add a few tidbits which were sent to me by my many correspondents. First, here is a reference:

    Perry, Ruth (1992) "A short history of the term politically correct" in Aufderherde, Patricia (ed.) _Beyond PC: Towards a Politics of Understanding_.

    I am not able to check this myself right now, but apparently it promotes the Maoist origin theory, which seems to be well-supported by the personal anecdotes I was sent. However, Dennis Baron provides evidence suggesting that the term is still older. It's possible that the 1947 Nabokov citation and the 1936 citation were borrowing Marxist-Leninist terminology (with the 1793 citation a fluke), but they certainly can't be Maoist. Perhaps these extra-early citations were influenced by the same sources that influenced Mao, but that's going back a bit too far, I think. The phrase didn't take on a life of its own, apparently, until it was picked up by radicals in the '60s. Frederick Newmeyer's observation of a shift in usage by leftists (from politics to individual behavior) is also supported by anecdotes I was told. The usage of "PC" that I encountered in college in the mid-80s was then a still later, sarcastic, usage. It was this usage that was then modified and spread to the mainstream by non-leftists. Hence (and feel free to disagree with this -- I won't defend any of it):

    (0) Compositional semantics usage: "PC" = "politically" + "correct" (at least since 1793) (1) Marxist-Leninist usage: "PC" means to conform to official policy (ca. 1930s?) (2) Maoist usage: the same (ca. 1950s?) (3) North American Maoist usage: the same (ca. 196x?) (4) later NA leftist usage: "PC" means to behave in an appropriate fashion, even if there is no official policy at stake (examples of this usage found as late as mid-80s) (5) leftist/centrist sarcastic usage: "PC" means to be too dictatorial about appropriate behavior in others (earliest anecdotes go back to 70s, perhaps dominant usage by 1985 -- still may be used this way on occasion, even in mainstream press) (6) current usages: see your local media

    The only other interesting thing I can say on this is to pass on the observation of Miriam Meyerhoff, who, at university in New Zealand ca. 1981, heard the phrases "politically unsound" and "politically sound" used according to usage (4), along with the abbreviations "PU" and "PS". Just to add a bit of lexical variation to your helping of semantic drift.

    Anyway, thanks to the following correspondents: Karen Baumer, Elissa Flagg, Warren Frerichs, Dorine S. Houston, J. P. Kirchner, Joerge Koch, Tom McClive, Miriam Meyerhoff, Janice Rothstein, Kevin Russel, Marilyn Silva, Daniel Swingley, Karl Teeter.

    - jm