Watch your language! - The debate on political correctness

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1 Introduction

2 The debate on pc
2.1 What is "political correctness"?
2.2 History of the term "pc"
2.3 Censorship and pc

3 Linguistic questions on the pc -debate
3.1 “Not pc !” – “Feminazis” and the “Republican Revolution”
3.2 “Don’t you say!” - speech codes

4 Conclusion

5. References
5.1. books and articles
5.2. Internet research (selection)

1 Introduction

Especially in the current German “Nationalstolzdebatte” the term “political correctness[1] has it’s comeback in the 21st century. Laurenz Meyer is proud of his country. But: are you still allowed to be a German patriot (after the holocaust of the 3rd Reich took place here)? Is this pc ?

His opponent in this debate is the minister for environmental issues, Juergen Trittin. He called his antagonist a “Skinhead”. Can you compare a politician with a neo-nazi that lays violent hand on somebody? Is this pc ?

Generally: The question “pc or not pc” appears whenever a taboo is discussed.

But what exactly is political correctness ? How did the term emerge? Where are the origins of the pc -myth? What is the history of the pc -debate? This essay will try to give the answers.

In the first chapter I will show the roots of the term “political correctness”. The historical development will be shown. The debate about censorship and political dependence of pc is portrayed as well.

Later I will focus even more on the linguistic aspects of pc. The prime linguistic questions are described and some expressions are examined. Finally there is a short analysis of the need for speech codes

2 The debate on pc

2.1 What is "political correctness"?

The term "political correctness", pc for short, made its appearance in the American media in the early 90`s. Articles and broadcasts warned against a threat to American universities and the idea of liberal education. The villains were feminists, multiculturalists and "tenured radicals" who seemed to have taken control of the universities.

"political correctness" became the cry of the conservative critics at the universities. This expression had the advantage that a variety of groups with "leftist" agendas - groups that stood for

- multiculturalism
- affirmative action
- speech codes
- feminism
- gay and lesbian rights

could be united into a single conspiracy by the conservatives.[2]

They saw themselves as “the defenders of Western Culture”.

The conservatives were successful in establishing pc as a term with extremely negative connotations. Many Americans would now link the phrase to a "repressive agenda" set forth by "tenured radicals".[3] John Wilson recalls from his own college experience that

"whenever conservatives were criticized or a leftist expressed extreme ideas, the story quick became another anecdote of political correctness. But whenever someone on the Left was censored - often with the approval of the same conservatives who complained about the pc police - nobody called it political correctness (...)"[4]

The "pc horror" attracted more media attention than racist or homophobic attacks on campuses - and more attention than what Wilson calls "fiscal correctness": It was the wave of cutbacks in state funding of higher education and the limited access to education for poorer students.

2.2 History of the term "pc"

But how did the term emerge? What was its history before it was taken up by conservatives in the late 1980s?

The term did emerge from the counter-cultural movements of the left. It is difficult to find out what it first meant and how it was typically used: Linguistic studies have long had a preference to "mainstream" sources and to written language.[5] These limitations are important if we want to determine the historical usage of a term, that was used in the spoken language of counter-cultural movements. Their speech and most of their writing has been non-mainstream and the habits of speech have been "in-group" - the groups did not have the goal to submit terms to a constituency.

Some authors have still tried to uncover the hidden history of the term, which required the co-operation and the accurate recollection of people who were part of the counter-cultural left.

Herbert Kohl first heard the term in the late 1940s in debates between socialists and members of the US Communist Party: "Politically correct" was

"being used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the CP line overrode compassion and led to bad politics."[6]

Nearly all authors agree on the fact that the term was used sarcastically by leftists - to criticize themselves for taking radical doctrines to extremes. The most common use was ironic.

It was always used as in "we could stop at McDonalds's down the road if you’re hungry - but it wouldn't be politically correct."

It seems clear from various accounts that “politically correct” was used as an in-group-marker and understood by insiders as a joke at their own expense. It was used to criticize the group's own tendency towards humourlessness and orthodox party lines.

The term "political correctness" seems to have been “formed” in the early part of this century; it was employed by various species of Marxists. The revolutionary idealists of that period were serious people - and there is no indication that they spoke of political correctness with any kind of irony or self-depravation.

2.3 Censorship and pc

Arguments about university curricula, speech codes and minority rights are much older than the controversy over pc. But the use of the new term must be regarded to a different stage in the “culture wars” in America.

One of the peculiarities of the debate on pc is that the parties involved do not even agree on what they argue about is labeled "political correctness".[7] The use of this term is already part of a rhetorical strategy. It provides an example of linguistic politics.


[1]pc“ is used as a surrogate for „political correctness“ in this essay

[2] John K. Wilson: The Myth of Political correctness. The Conservative Attack on Higher Education. Duke University Press, Durham 1995, p. 1

[3] Richard Feldstein: Political correctness. A Response from the Cultural Left. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 1997, p. 1

[4] Wilson: Myth, p. XV

[5] Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, p. 126

[6] Herbert Kohl: "The Political Correct Bypass: Multiculturalism and the Public Schools". Social Policy, Summer 1991, p. 33

[7] Cameron: Verbal Hygiene, p. 122

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Watch your language! - The debate on political correctness
University of Osnabrück  (Fachbereich Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft)
English as a Global Language
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
402 KB
Watch, English, Global, Language
Quote paper
Mag. Klaus Storm (Author), 2000, Watch your language! - The debate on political correctness, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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