July 11, 1999 - Politically Correct

INTRO: This week our Wordmasters Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble explore what it means to be "politically correct."

AA: On its face, the term politically correct certainly seems innocent enough. After all, who doesn't like to be correct?

RS: But these days most people would be insulted to be called "politically correct."

AA: The term "politically correct" first appeared in the Random House Webster's College Dictionary in 1991. Random house has kept the original meaning in a second edition just published:

RS: "Politically correct - adjective, marked by or adhering to a typically progressive orthodoxy on issues involving especially race, gender, sexual affinity, or ecology. "

SHEIDLOWER: "Throughout the 1970s and most of the 1980s it was something that one should aspire to.

AA: Jesse Sheidlower is a senior editor for new words at random house reference in New York.

SHEIDLOWER: "Around 1990 or so, at the time that it did get this kind of mainstream play, it was very negative and that has pretty much continued. Now no one or almost no one would describe themselves as politically correct. It's only the sort of thing that you use to criticize someone else. It doesn't really have any kind of positive sense anymore. It's just completely died out. "

RS: So what's a sure-fire way to be accused of political correctness?

SHEIDLOWER: "Standing up for environmental rights at the expense of people whose jobs will be lost if environmental legislation would be passed - that's a very typical sort of thing that right now would be described as politically correct. "

AA: Yet Jesse Sheidlower says that even as Americans make fun of political correctness, American language is becoming -- dare we say it? -- more politically correct.

SHEIDLOWER: "In the last ten years, there's been a big change in a number of usages that have made a big impact in American life, and some of these changes are ones that would be considered politically correct if we wanted to use that term. But because of the way the term has evolved, calling them politically correct will make it sound more negative that it actually is.

"Perhaps the biggest area [of change] is any kind of gender-related terms. We really have stepped away in a big way from using words that specify the sex of the person being referred to. So words like policeman and mailman or chairman, things like that, have been replaced by words with 'person' in their place, or saying something like 'chair' instead of chairman, or 'mail carrier' instead of mailman, 'police officer' instead of policeman. It really has been a big shift and we've really accepted this kind of vocabulary to a very large extent in the last ten years. Most people aren't bothered by this.

"Now, there have been some words and some phrases that have gotten a lot of negative attention, such as the word 'waitron' - meaning waiter or waitress, a person who waits on tables, without specifying sex. This is one that people really hate, and this is a word that gets called politically correct and is made fun of."

AA: "Do you mind being called politically correct? Would you take that as an insult?"

SHEIDLOWER: "I probably would because it would probably be intended as an insult. I'd find it difficult to imagine being called politically correct as praise nowadays. "

RS: "so it's nothing that our listeners should strive for -although in their use of language they may apply some of the principles."

SHEIDLOWER: "that's exactly right. There are many of the principles of political correctness that are perfectly fine but being called politically correct is almost always considered negative."

AA: "And with your dictionary people can get some guidance on which language is good to use and which is to be rejected."

SHEIDLOWER: "We do have a long essay in the back of the dictionary called 'avoiding insensitive and offensive language' that provides guidelines that we think are pretty straightforward, that no one could really object very strongly to. The guidelines do suggest things like using 'police officer' instead of 'policeman' or not assuming that a particular profession is male or female: don't assume that all nurses are female and don't assume that all lawyers are male. We really think that these guidelines are sensible and straightforward; of course, some people have accused these guidelines of being politically correct, but we are not trying to force people to speak in any particular way. We are simply setting out the kind of reaction that people can have to unintentional use of language like this."

RS: Senior editor Jesse Sheidlower at Random House Reference Publishing in New York.

AA: Next week, we venture into the political language of Washington with comedian George Carlin.

RS: With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.