Some of the most loaded words in the language are those associated with theway society talks about itself, and especially about groups of people whom it perceives to be disadvantaged or oppressed.
The most sensitive domains are to do with race, gender, sexual affinity, ecology and (physical or mental) personal development.
During the 1980s, an increasing number of people becameconcernedto eradicate what they saw to be prejudice (especially language prejudice) in these areas. The label racialist was already known from the turn of the century, and racist from the thirties. Sexist was added in the 1960s, and followed by a series of other -ist terms which focused on real or imagined areas of linguistic discrimination. Many of the critics were members of progressive or activist groups (e.g. advocates of minority rights), especially in universities and thus, as the movement grew, attracting hard-line extremists alongside moderates, it drew down upon itself the antagonism of conservativeacademics and journalists. By the 1990s, this hard-line linguistic orthodoxy was being referred to, pejoratively, as political correctness (PC).
Anyone who used vocabulary held to be "politically incorrect" risked severe condemnation by the PC activists. The word "black", for example, was felt to be so sensitive that some banned its use in all possible contexts (including blackboard and black pieces in chess). The generic use of man was widely attacked. Mentally handicapped people were to become people with learning difficulties. Disabled people were to be differently abled. Third World countries were to be developing nations. All but the most beautiful or handsome were aestheticallychallenged. And in theacademicliterary world there would need to be safeguards against the unhealthy influence wielded by DWEMs (Dead White European Males) as Shakespeare, Goethe and Moliere.
Critical Reaction. In the early 1990s, many people reacted strongly to what they saw as a trend towards terminological absurdity. Newspaper headlines contained references to "the end of freedom of speech". And certainly there werecases cited ofacademics who had criticised the PC position being labeled racist or sexist and losing their courses or their case for promotion. PC had become, according to an Economist editorial of the time, "the most pernicious form of intolerance".
The arguments continue. Critics of PC believe that the search for a "caring" lexicon is pointless, as long as the inequalities which the language reflects do not change. Proponents of PC argue that the use of language itself helps to perpetuate these inequalities. At present the speed at which fashions change in the use of PC terms suggests that it is not so easy to manipulate language as the reformers think. Dissatisfaction over one term tends to spread to its replacements as has been seen with such sequences as Negro to black to Afro-American to African American.
Political correctness has become one of the most contentious issues on the US socio-political scene in recent years, and attitudes continue to harden. Those who adopt a PC line typically do so with an aggressiveness which creates antagonism even among those who might themselves be concerned about traditional labels. However, extreme positions quickly attract ridicule and it is not surprising to find several publications in the 1990s beginning to satirise them. It may yet be humour which will restore a balanced perspective to the debate.