Political correctness in the English language

Term Paper, 2007

19 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. Definition and historical background
2.1 Political correctness
2.1.1 Historical development of the terms Political Correctness and Political Correct
2.1.2 Definition
2.2 Women’s Liberation Movement and Feminist linguistic criticism

3. Language and thinking: Explaining the need for a language change
3.1 The Sapir-Whorf-hypothesis
3.2 The common gender/generic masculine

4. Measures of political correctness: Speech codes and language reforms
4.1 Speech codes
4.1.1 Legitimation of speech regulations
4.1.2 Arguments against speech regulations
4.2. Guidelines for non–sexist language
4.2.1 Development and purpose
4.2.2 The Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing
4.2.3 Effects and reactions

5. Conclusion

6. References

1. Introduction

In London during the 1980ies there were reports in the right-wing press, that socialist local councils like Hackney Council had to banish the word manhole by order of its Women’s Committee since the term was meant to be sexist. This is just one out of many incidences that came up during the political correctness debate. Since the eighties this phenomenon has occurred on the American campuses and developed rapidly to a publicly debated subject. This essay will deal with the phenomenon of the political correctness in the English language with the main focus on gender questions and feminist linguistics. The central question is if expressions like policemen or phrases like to be the master of the situation are really conceived as sexist by the majority of people and if replacing those by terms like “police officers” can solve the problem of sexist language use. Have the efforts to regulate or reform language been successful and can language be at all non-sexist or even neutral?

First of all, the term political correctness and politically correct are placed into a historical context explaining its roots and development before trying to define the concept. Furthermore, the importance of the political correctness debate for the Women’s Liberation Movement and the development of feminist linguistics will be explained.

The third chapter explains on which assumptions and theories the claimed language change is based on. The relation between language use and perception of the individual or of a group plays a central part. In the context of the political correctness debate the central question is in how far sexist language use, representation, the naming or not naming of women effects the perception and thinking of people.

The fourth chapter gives a description of the measures that were taken in order to influence language and language use. On the one hand, measures aimed at the regulation and sanction of sexist language and on the other hand, some more moderate and liberal measures intended the reformation of language in order to achieve more equality between women and men on a linguistic level. In how far have these measures been successful in increasing the awareness for discriminating language use?

2. Definition and historical background

2.1 Political correctness

2.1.1 Historical development of the terms Political Correctness and Political Correct

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.

2.1.2 Definition

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.

2.2 Women’s Liberation Movement and Feminist linguistic criticism

The feminist linguistic criticism, which occurred during the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1960ies, has led to the most extensive language change up to present and to a more sensitive and conscious language use. The Women’s Liberation Movement aimed at the elimination of each form of oppression based on gender and wanted to achieve an equal economic and social status for women. The prevalent language use reflecting the social situation of women was regarded as one central form of oppression since “sexist language teaches us what those who use it […] think women’s place to be: second class citizens, neither seen nor heard, external sexobjects and personifications of evil.” (Cameron in Wierlemann 2002: 63)

The feminist linguistics assumed that language influences consciousness and perception. Due to this assumption they intended the formulation of a critical linguistics in order to initiate the change of language use, which would finally result in the change of consciousness. To facilitate language change, an analysis of the current language use was essential. In their analysis the adherents of feminist linguistics came to the conclusion that the prevalent language use reflected sexism and is discriminating. Whereas this kind of language use might be considered to be a symptom for a general, possibly unconscious impoliteness or rudeness people possess. And since sex discrimination might not be conscious, it is possible to make the speaker aware of his or her careless language use.

Feminist linguistics did not only condemn sexist language use but the English language system with its generic pronouns. The problem of common gender and the alternative proposals will be further discussed in chapter 3.2.

However, some efforts of the feminist linguistics were regarded as quite controversial such as the claim that the word history would be understood as his tory dominated and determined by male. The alternative proposal herstory would value and emphasize the contributions and meaning of women whereas it is disregarded that there is no etymological connection between the word history and the pronoun his. (Wierlemann 2002:66) Similar proposals like se fem tics, fem tal or hu fem were due to those etymologically wrong conclusions not taken serious.

Finally, Cameron maintains that it was the aim of the Women’s Liberation Movement to strive for a sensitised language use, a “non-sexist language […] which excludes neither women nor men” (Wierlemann 1985:68). Its proponents wanted to consider the social change that was initiated by the reform movement as well in the language use, which they to some extent could achieve with the neutralisation of gender-specific terms by changing terms like chairman into chairperson or chair. The ideas of the Women’s Liberation Movement are still present today and the main achievement of its proponents is that they have initiated and mobilized the public discussion in society which has finally led to a change in the language use.


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Political correctness in the English language
University of Duisburg-Essen
Language and Gender
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
419 KB
Einbezug relevanter Literatur, Literaturverzeichnis O.K, Inhalt: recht gute gegliederte Darstellung des Themas. (Kommentar des Dozenten)
Political, English, Language, Gender
Quote paper
Thuy Nguyen (Author), 2007, Political correctness in the English language, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/115796


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Political correctness in the English language

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free