Lyndon Hood - political corrector

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The term 'political correctness' has become intensely pejorative since it started appearing in dictionaries in the early 90s. It's ironic (as in, genuinely ironic; not like Alannis Morrisette) that things like gender-inclusive language have been widely accepted but the movement responsible is repressed because of the dominant vocabulary.

And I'm guessing that at least half of the times something is called 'politically correct' it means nothing except 'I don't like this thing', perhaps with the added hint that said thing smacks of do-goodery. This effect applies most particularly to 'political correctness gone mad'.

So I would have though that a group interested in maintaining the quality of the language would dot their eyes and cross their tees when dealing with such a fuzzy concept. Mind you, I'd have thought they'd be more careful about the spelling on their website, too.

The Global Language Monitor* has released its list of the 10 most politically correct terms of the year. I'm not sure how the list was generated, And I don't think even they know what they mean by politically correct language. Any attempt to find an explanation on their site is doomed to painful failure and the list itself is just inconsistent.

About half the list deals with archetypal PC cases of trying to change language with social engineering in mind. Whether for better or for worse may be a matter of opinion. The rest I just don't get.

The first-place-getter ('Device/Captured Device' for 'Master/Slave', a substitution demanded by an anonymous county official for the new computers) is indeed obviously silly. Mr Monitor describes this as "... but one more example of the insertion of politics into every facet of modern life." Possibly. Though it seems to have been then work of a lone nut and it also seems to have been fixed.

And it's more a question of degree. If the primary and secondary hard drives had through some historical fluke been called 'Planter/Negro' or 'Rapist/Slut' then I think even Monitorboy would have to concede the point.

Though 'Waitron' to describe the person giving you food probably won't take off. Here's a hint: the theatre profession eliminated the rather dismissive 'actress' by calling everyone 'actors'. Next time you see a female thespian referred to as and 'actor' you might discreetly point out that she's etymologically male.

On the other hand, is it really fifth-place-gettingly terrible that somebody tried to encourage a religiously neutral descriptor of the absolute ('higher power' for 'God')?

New Zealanders might take note of 'non-same-sex-marriage' (number two on the list). This seems to have appeared in exactly one speech and sounds more like someone having trouble expressing themselves than dogmatic linguistics. I'd certainly like to know what the whole sentence was.

What our man should have said, apparently, was 'marriage'. Since exactly what constitutes marriage is one of the points at issue, I'd have thought some odd vocabulary was permitted or even required.

So I'll be disappointed if I don't see some really stupid suggestions for what to call people bound by civil union. Uniees? Civil unicants? I imagine we'll just settle on 'partners'.

Seems there was a spree of reverences to George W Bush as 'incurious' after the 9/11 commission results were released. This came in at number seven. I guess this is but one more example of the insertion of politics into even politics. Clearly the Language Monitors believe in calling a spade a spade. While Mr Bush does share many qualities with a spade, surely that doesn't mean the media is required to insult the President during a time of war. And anyway: incurious George, ha ha ha.

That is similar to several other items, most notably 'insurgents' for the people rising up against established authority in Iraq, in that it's an entirely accurate description. Sometimes more so than the alleged original.

Still, at least they don't seem partisan.

The rest of the GLM site is kind of interesting. They track buzzwords in media reports and rate how hot they are using some secret algorithm. There's also a user-submitted list of reported words and phrases, though I can't say whether it's for new words or abused words or 'hot' words or just made up words or what (looking at that page I considered nominating 'LanguagePolice' and 'WatchList'). Especially since once again they are shorn of all context.

Someone who imagines that a word can carry much meaning outside a sentence is unlikely to grasp the fraught relationship between form and content in language. So they should probably give up on the political correctness thing.

* From my experience of American English I take it that a 'global language monitor' is someone whose job it is to clean the global language when the teacher has finished using it.