Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Who is Winning the War of the Words: PC or Non-PC?

My friend and colleague, Michelle, was over this evening and we were talking about jargon and euphemisms. One of the euphemisms she mentioned was the politically correct term differently abled, which she and I both agreed about: we hate the term. It's an ugly, too-general phrase that attempts to disguise the fact that the person it refers to has a physical, emotional, or intellectual disability of some sort. The intention behind the term is good, of course: using this term instead of, say, handicapped is an attempt to be kind, an attempt to minimize the disability and maximize the humanity of the person being described.

But to paraphrase Shakespeare, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions--and so is the PC movement. The plan was to use carefully selected words to eliminate discrimination, build self-esteem, and create a new, more empathetic awareness for one another. But rather than providing solid solutions, the movement raises more questions than it answers. Emily Tsao, in "Thoughts of an Oriental Girl," poses this query: "Minority groups want new labels to give themselves a more positive image, but unless the stereotypes disappear as well, is it really going to help very much?" One can talk up a PC storm, but if the speaker's thoughts or actions are discriminatory, what good will a change in language do? Will we treat one another better because we are calling each other by a different name?

Whether such changes to the language effect a change in our behavior or the way we view others is really not the focus of this blog entry; rather, I want to take a look at how the movement changes our language, even diminishes it, makes it, well, unlovely.

Eloquence has been a mover and shaker of the English language since the Renaissance. During this period of artistic rebirth, scholars turned to Greek and Latin classical literature as examples of beautifully expressed, persuasive language. In an attempt to make English more eloquent, many Latinate words were borrowed, and thousands of words were coined. Like the Renaissance, the PC movement has created a need for new words and phrases. But the question is whether they increase the eloquence of the language. The consensus seems to be best expressed by Bill Bryson in Made in America: that these "verbal creations are burdening us with ludicrously sanitized neologisms [word creations] that are an embarrassment to civilized discourse." His argument is that we have taken perfectly good, specific, descriptive words and generalized them, stripping meaning and color from the English language. And I agree. Often, several words replace one, making politically correct language verbose and cumbersome.

Let's take a look at the way in which politically correct words are actually coined. The Oxford Companion to the English Language categorizes word coinages, or neologisms, into seven categories, and I'll explain how the Companion defines those categories and then provide some examples of PC coinages for each.

  1. Compounding. Compounding is forming a word or phrase from two or more different words. It seems to be used in the PC movement most commonly to classify races of people, as in African-American and Native American (instead of the previous Black and Indian).

  2. Derivation. Derivation makes more complex words out of simpler words, usually by adding one or more prefixes and/or suffixes. This category is probably the largest for PC coinages. Favorite suffixes of the movement include
    • -ism as in Ableism
    • -ist (one who promotes -isms), as in Ageist (one who promotes age discrimination)
    • -free, as in charm-free (boring).
    • Other examples of derivations include autoeuthanasia (suicide) and disempowered (powerless).

  3. Shifting meaning. Dog warden (for dog catcher) is a good example of shifting meaning. A warden is one who guards something; generally, we think of a guard in a jail. In this case, a "warden" actually catches dogs instead of guarding them, giving a new spin to the word.

  4. Extension in grammatical function. Extension in grammatical function occurs when one part of speech is used as another, as in verbing nouns. :-) An example would be the term unwaged (fired), as in "Mary's employer unwaged her." Here, unwaged (a derivation of un + the noun wage + ed) is used as a verb.

  5. Abbreviation. Abbreviation uses a shortened version of a word or creates an acronym for a given phrase. Several abbreviations have entered the English language including, of course, PC (Politically Correct); BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Current Era), replacing BC and AD, abbreviations which demonstrate a preference for Christianity; DWEM (Dead White European Males), e.g., Shakespeare, and PWA (Person with AIDS). Of these examples, BCE and CE have gained serious acceptance, perhaps because scholars of that most serious of books, the Bible, use them in scholarship. So many of the other examples have become jokes.

  6. Back-formation. Back-formation occurs when suffixes are removed from a word. Chair for Chairman or Chairperson can be considered an example of back-formation; however, it is less a neologism than it is a revival of an older term.

  7. Blending. Blending is a mixing of two words by attaching part of one word to part of another. Amerindian (Native American) is a classic example, combining American with Indian.

  8. Borrowing. Borrowing occurs when words from another language are used. Surprisingly, this neologism type does not often occur in PC language, and I am still searching for an example (please e-mail me if you find one). It is curious to me that a movement associated with multiculturalism should be so rigidly English.

  9. Root-creation. Root-creation, which is also rare in PC word coinages, is the genesis of a completely new word with no known root. I could only find one example, although there may well be others (again, please e-mail me if you find one): Kwanzaa. The December 29, 1991 issue of The Observer indicates that "Three years ago, the Smithsonian in Washington added 'Kwanzaa' (a complete invention by a black studies professor at California State University) to Hanukkah and Christmas exhibitions" (qtd. in Rees, 84).
In addition to being neologisms, most of the movement's terms are also euphemisms, or words that replace other words that might be considered too negative or direct. Often, euphemisms are used to replace job names that sound demeaning; for example, rodent operator instead of rat catcher, sanitation assistant for garbage collector, and street orderly for road sweeper. Others are used to relive the unpleasantness of uncomfortable topics: family planning for birth control, pro-choice for abortion, survivor for victim. But although we have switched the words we use for these situations, the euphemism doesn't change the situation: the sanitation assistant still picks up garbage. The woman who exercises her pro-choice right still has an abortion. The rape survivor is still a victim. It just sounds more pleasant than it really is and allows us, for a moment, to say the words without feeling squeamish about it.

Sexist language has also been affected by the movement. Feminists are trying to purge sexist references from the English language, which tends to be gender biased in favor of males. Among the attempted coinages are womyn or wimmin for women, utility access hole or femhole for manhole, herstory for history, and femstruate for menstruate. Some of the more successful attempts have renamed employment positions that were male-oriented in tone: firefighter for fireman, council member for alderman, company representative for spokesman, and flight attendant for steward/stewardess. What makes this purging process problematic, however, is that many of the words feminists are attempting to get rid of--he, his, man, and men--may have no etymological link to maleness. For example, in words like manufacture and manual labor, the word man means hand. This sweeping attempt has caused a fervent backlash among the male population and even among some women, who dismiss the need to change sexist language and instead chalk the attempt up to the foolishness of feminist extremists. This dismissal of the language results in a dismissal of the problem; thus, arguing about language becomes an avoidance technique.

Political correctness primarily influences vocabulary; however, in some instances, the movement has also affected our grammar. For instance, it used to be proper to say colored people. That term is no longer in vogue; it has since changed to Negroes, then Blacks, and now African-Americans. But now we are seeing a revival of the term, this time as people of color. Humorists have turned Frosty the Snowman into Frosty, the Person of Snow. We may see more of this grammatical juxtaposition in the future. Unfortunately, the wordiness that results from the extensive use of prepositional phrases only makes PC language more unwieldy.

It is abundantly clear that the political correctness movement has profoundly affected the English language, both its grammar and vocabulary. These changes were instituted in an effort to emphasize the positive qualities in people and situations, downplaying the negative. The intent was to change the English language by removing words that hurt and replacing them with words that build up and encourage. Unfortunately, the effects do not always turn out as intended, often resulting in ridicule of an admirable cause. What started out as a serious attempt to help humanity through language has become silly, and humorists who have coined terms like Vehicularly Compressed Maladapted Life Form for road kill and Mortgage-free living for homelessness ("Glossary of Politically Correct Terms") have exacerbated the problem.

Changing the language ultimately fails in its attempt at solving what is really not so much a language problem but a much larger problem: humanity's penchant for prejudice and discrimination. The next step must go beyond language.

What are your most despised PC phrases? What do you think about the PC movement?


Michelle said...

Nicely written!

I think my new favorite after doing a bit of my own research is "mineral companion" in place of "pet rock".

Paul Meredith said...

I continue to be educated (I think)by what you, my daughter, write in your blog.

I have often said that parents are stupid until their kids attain the age of thirty-five. I may have to revise the statement to age ????.

Diane said...

Hi Kris,

This was VERY interesting and something that I have thought about many times. It is amazing, the change.

My thoughts are that also with the PC movement (when I first started reading this I thought of Personal Computers! Then I realized it was an abbrieviation... ha ha... that kind of goes along with your point doesn't it?!) comes guilt, if you catch yourself saying the "wrong thing" like saying "black people".

I find that the PC movement has become silly to me and I guess this is because the movement has been taken to an extreme. Mineral Companion (above) hilarious and cute! But also demonstrates the extreme that PC-ness has come to. Hence all the ridicule.

Basically you hit the nail on the head, the problem is really not how we word things, but how we view the groups we are renaming.

I think the only PC's I agree with/think may be necessary are say Mail Carrier instead of mailman, gender PC words. Then I ask myself how they are different than the other PC words, and why are gender correct words acceptable to me. Maybe it is because I am a woman... but to me gender is a different ballgame than say race, or disability. Because EVERYONE is either male or female... so these PC words make sense to me. Also women weren't in the work force in earlier times as they are now, and now that they are there is a need for these changes.

Otherwise, I think all the PC words are too hard to remember, I don't like having to "watch what I say" when before it was acceptable to say, and basically I think it's somewhat silly. (although I will use them in public places - so as not to offend) I don't feel that calling someone black is any more insulting than calling someone white... it's just a color... and we ARE those colors! ha ha!

I enjoyed the read!