Politically Correct Language
Rests on Shifting Sand

             By Judi Morress                                             

  “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”  We all know that  playground retort isn't true, don't we?  Words have weight, words can wound, and even if we as individuals have never been on the receiving end of a hateful label, surely we can understand that it hurts.  Did anyone ever call you stupid?  Multiply that by a thousand and you'll have an idea of what it must be like. 

            Miss Manners says that everyone has the right to choose what they want to be called.  This goes beyond “James or Jimmy,” “Mrs. Jones or Sally,” to “Black or African-American,” and  even to cities and countries, hence “Bombay to Mumbai” and “Burma to Myanmar.”  We've gone from “Indian” to “Native American” only to find out that names of specific tribes are preferred.  Yes, it does take paying attention to keep up, but we do like to think of ourselves as well-informed and caring people, don't we?

            Let's take a look at names that only change once, Mumbai and Myanmar being recent examples.  Siam became Thailand shortly after WWII.  I think the majority of African countries have different names from those they had when I was in 4th  Grade and the map on the schoolroom wall had huge pink areas and the sun never set on the British Empire, and Viet Nam, Cambodia, and Laos  were French Indo-China.  Now that those countries are no longer colonies, they have thrown out the European names imposed on them and reverted to their native names – perfectly understandable.  Presumably, that's the end of it (failing a revolution).

            But now let's look at names that keep changing, often several times within living memory.  I'm old enough to remember the multiple transitions from N****r to Colored to Negro to Black to African-American.  I'm not sure where non-white and Afro-American go in this progression, but I've heard those too, as well as various other pejorative terms too numerous to mention, the many reminders of oppression.  There's a long and shameful history behind the words, and it's hard to forget.  William Faulkner said, “The past is not over, it's not even past.” 

            And I also remember when “mentally retarded” was considered the polite term for those previously labeled “imbecile,” “moron” and “idiot.”  Yes, those were the so-called “scientific” terms, based on the level of intelligence or lack thereof.

            Why do the words keep changing?  The noted psycho-linguist Steven Pinker explains that as long as who or what has a negative connotation, the “kind” word takes on an “unkind” meaning.  Hence, not too long after the imbecile/moron/idiot/ designation was done away with, children on the playground began calling other children, “Hey, you big fat retard!”  And, of course the reverse of this is Shakespeare's “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” (presumably, even if it were called a pig's snout).  We're working with a moving target here, Folks.  Until the underlying feelings change, every new politically correct term will become politically incorrect, to be replaced by another kinder, but short-lived one.

            As a white, middle-class American, I am one of the privileged people on the planet, and while I can understand on a logical, intellectual level how being called an oppressive word must feel, I can only “get it” on a gut level, as a woman.  In the late seventies, when I re-entered the work-force at an insurance company, the adult males were referred to as men, while the adult females were referred to as girls.  As time went by, this began to bother me.  I realized that this was an infantilization of women, who then did not need to be taken seriously.  Men were beginning to understand, haltingly, that this was inappropriate.  I remember a male colleague asking, “Well, what shall we call you then, 'ladies'?”   I replied, “Not unless you want to be referred to as 'gentlemen.'  How about 'women'?” to which he answered, “Oh, no, that's like my mother.”   At that point, I gave up.  Being his psychoanalyst was not in my job description.

            I can also relate to the difference between being called  a disabled person and a person with a disability.  We are all people, first and foremost, and some of us have bigger difficulties than others.   My gut level understanding of this comes from a time thirty years ago, after a particularly unpleasant divorce with much unnecessary pain for my children and myself, when I vowed that this experience would not be the central fact of my life.  I am many things, and divorced is pretty far down on the list.  A person with a disability is just that – a person.  On his own list of his characteristics, the disability may come pretty far down, after architect, husband, father, funny, balding, stubborn, etc.  

            There have been, and will continue to be, jokes about political correctness.  Short people are called “vertically challenged,” but there aren't many moron or polack jokes anymore.  Many of us of a certain age may have trouble keeping up with the “flavor of the month” politically correct term.  But we're trying, believe me, we are.

(This essay is graciously shared by Judi Morress, a poet, humorist and essayist, who own its copyright.)

Return to home page.