The Unlikely Origins Of The Phrase ‘Politically Correct’

“We’ll be right back to the politically correct program called ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Beauty Impaired.’ ” —Colin Mochrie, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”

In A Nutshell

You’ve probably come across a variation on the phrase “politically correct.” It’s an insult that implies its target is so bloodless they’ll say the stupidest things to avoid causing offense. It also usually implies they’re a “lefty-liberal” who should be ashamed of their PC attitude.

But the origins of “politically correct” are stranger than its current form suggests. Far from originating as a right-wing insult, it started life as a left-wing term of approval.

The Whole Bushel

Tune in to Fox News or flick through the Daily Mail and you’ll be assaulted with variations on the term “politically correct.” Although it has no widely agreed meaning, the context usually makes pretty clear it’s talking about liberals, often in a derogatory way (and not always completely unjustified). But this right-wing insult has its origins in the unlikeliest of places: the internal politics of the Russian Communist Party.

According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Kremlin advisers were the first to widely use the term. They did so without a trace of irony. Calling someone “politically correct” in Soviet Russia meant they toed the party line. A PC Kremlin insider was one who could reflect what Moscow was thinking—exactly the sort of person who would go far.

Now, to hear right-wing pundits ironically appropriated a Communist term to attack left-wingers wouldn’t be all that strange. What is strange is that they didn’t. Left-wingers beat them to it.

When “politically correct” first entered common English, it was used almost exclusively by left-wing groups to poke fun at themselves. New Left feminists deployed it to make fun of the old guard who spent too much time worrying about how to define things like a “feminist sexuality.” Progressives used it to mock their trade union–affiliated elders. Others used it as a reminder to avoid becoming like the Russia-sponsored lefties of old.

Its use wasn’t even always negative. Writing for NPR, Assistant Dean of Students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Melanie Huff recalled a time when she and her left-wing friends proudly proclaimed themselves “politically correct.” To them, says Huff, being PC meant making the world a better place to live. It meant challenging orthodoxy. It meant publicly supporting HIV sufferers. It meant doing good.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that PC finally reached its current (and perhaps permanent) usage, as a right-wing insult toward those overly concerned with identity politics. It was only when Dinesh D’Souza’s book, Illiberal Education, came out in 1991 that PC was firmly ripped out of left-wing hands. Since then, it’s become the go-to insult for conservative pundits, a strange end for a term with such a conflicting, checkered history.

Show Me The Proof

Brown Political Review: The Political Relevancy of Political Correctness
NPR: Mailbox: When Saying “Politically Correct” Is No Longer Correct

  • Erwin

    “Political correctness has changed everything. People forget that political correctness used to be called spastic gay talk”
    Frankie Boyle

  • oouchan

    There is a way of speaking as to not be an asshole. PC can go too far but it does help in certain areas. Like stopping someone from calling another person “nigger”, “retard”, “faggot” in public places. That just shows your lack of (as if you had any) intelligence. As for going too far…no joke…but my kid’s school wanted to ban the word fart because it was a nasty word. Really? Wanted to change it to fluff. That was about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

    meh.

    • Clyde Barrow

      Banning “fart” is way over the top. As far as I’m concerned, so is “retard”, that’s relatively new to the hypocritical PC police, and people are going to come up with a hundred different alternatives, none more appealing or respectful. I’m saying this as a relatively liberal person, but Political Correctness is bogus, some people need to grow a thicker skin.

      But the people that do hurl slurs around should remember to, “not throw stones if you live in a glass house”.

      • oouchan

        Retard is just as bad as nigger…if you say one, you have to allow the other.
        It’s against those with disabilities and just not a nice word.
        I do agree that PC is mostly bogus. 🙂

        • guest

          Retard is simply french for slow. The only people I’ve known to get offended by it are parents who think it will somehow make their kids feel worse then calling them mentally handicapped. All the people I know who have issues use the term and don’t care if their called it because it’s only offensive when you treat it like it is.

          • oouchan

            For those that suffer disabilities and who have been called the name…it is offensive. Just like calling someone a nigger. It’s just not acceptable. There are so many other word choices…choose wiser is a better option.
            Those that use the term are low in my opinion.

          • Dan Jaminski

            Its only offensive when used in a derogatory way. Context is everything. People with a PC mentality need to use their brains and realize there’s a difference.

          • oouchan

            Used in context is fine, but just in generally. ….there are better words to use.

          • Newtonslefttesticle

            Which itself, stems from the Latin verb, retardare, meaning to hinder or make slow.

      • inconspicuous detective

        banning retard is so gay, dude.

        • Clyde Barrow

          That’s the spirit!

          • lonelydisco

            Vodka!

    • beck

      My kids don’t even know what a fluff is. I just asked them & now they keep asking me to show them a fluff.

    • inconspicuous detective

      sounds like a drug.

      “Mr. B! Tina is fluffing back here!”

      *drug sniffing dogs and armed FDA operatives storm the school, ultimately arresting 9 year old Tina for something ludicrous*

    • lonelydisco

      Isn’t “fluff” a porn term?

    • objectivefactsmatter

      That’s rudeness versus civility. Politically Correct is an attempt to signal “correctness” against intuition or to resolve cognitive dissonance.

      For example it is Politically Correct for gays to support the Democratic Party’s plans for bringing in Syrian refugees according to what the Party leaders says is correct. It might conflict with concerns that some of these refugees might hold hostile attitudes towards gays. But the Politically Correct position is to support these immigrants.

      Why? Because they’re also “victims of oppression” at the hands of the “right wing” or “the establishment’ or capitalism or whatever. Without these needs to resolve cognitive dissonance like this terms like civility, right thing to do and so forth would be perfectly adequate without need to refer to Politically Correct as something distinct.

      Politically Correct is a term that signals a new collectivist value system. The cognitive dissonance comes from the conflict with the “old” value system focused on individual rights and keeping family, friends and neighbors safe from harm before gullibly swallowing the plans from the Commanding Heights of Washington DC, or whatever, as “correct” for some reason perhaps unseen by the individuals being addressed. It has to do with lining up the political identity groups and signaling priorities according to central plans rather than allowing them to defend their own interests according to traditional individualist (and or local group) values.

      • Map ≠ Territory

        Yet another no-data theory.

        • objectivefactsmatter

          politically correct (adj.)
          first attested in prevailing current sense 1970; abbreviation P.C. is from 1986.

          [T]here is no doubt that political correctness refers to the political movement and phenomenon, which began in the USA, with the aim to enforce a set of ideologies and views on gender, race and other minorities. Political correctness refers to language and ideas that may cause offence to some identity groups like women and aims at giving preferential treatment to members of those social groups in schools and universities. [Thuy Nguyen, “Political Correctness in the English Language,”2007]

          http://knowledgenuts.com/2015/05/28/the-unlikely-origins-of-the-phrase-politically-correct/

          According to the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Kremlin advisers were the first to widely use the term. They did so without a trace of irony. Calling someone “politically correct” in Soviet Russia meant they toed the party line. A PC Kremlin insider was one who could reflect what Moscow was thinking—exactly the sort of person who would go far.

          Now, to hear right-wing pundits ironically appropriated a Communist term to attack left-wingers wouldn’t be all that strange. What is strange is that they didn’t. Left-wingers beat them to it.

          When “politically correct” first entered common English, it was used almost exclusively by left-wing groups to poke fun at themselves. New Left feminists deployed it to make fun of the old guard who spent too much time worrying about how to define things like a “feminist sexuality.” Progressives used it to mock their trade union–affiliated elders. Others used it as a reminder to avoid becoming like the Russia-sponsored lefties of old.

          Its use wasn’t even always negative. Writing for NPR, Assistant Dean of Students at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism Melanie Huff recalled a time when she and her left-wing friends proudly proclaimed themselves “politically correct.” To them, says Huff, being PC meant making the world a better place to live. It meant challenging orthodoxy. It meant publicly supporting HIV sufferers. It meant doing good.

          http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Political_correctness

          Political correctness
          We control what
          you think with
          Language

          “The term political correctness or “PC” is a snarl word usually referring to upholding a social taboo against language and attitudes that might be considered bigoted. Ruth Perry wrote in an essay entitled A Short History of the Term “Politically Correct”[1] that the term was first coined by Mao Zedong.”

          • Map ≠ Territory

            Seriously? Those aren’t data, not even objective anecdotes–just theories by anti-commies about the origin of the term, theories that contradict each other and that we can’t fact-check because we don’t have the primary sources or literacy in Russian or Chinese. None of those theories support your theory including “intuition”, “cognitive dissonance”, “gullibly swallowing the plans from the Commanding Heights of Washington DC, or whatever”, or “for some reason perhaps unseen by the individuals being addressed”.

            “Or whatever” is a weasel term, signaling your brain BSing, unable to articulate with precision because it lacks objective facts. “Gullibly” is likely a fundamental attribution error for your anti-PC conspiracy theory about individuals being influenced by “unseen” forces from “Commanding Heights”. Also, with your ‘new vs. old’ framing, do you have something against updating in light of new developments or evidence or against new paradigms that better account for data?

            On the term in the US, with check-able references or data:
            https://thinkprogress.org/the-phony-debate-about-political-correctness-f81da03b3bdb#.8awc6dqk8
            https://www.quora.com/Who-invented-political-correctness-in-the-U-S-When-did-it-start-Why-did-it-start/answer/Andrew-McKenzie-4
            The dramatic rise in usage of the term since communism stopped being the thing to fearmonger about (with dissolutions of Berlin Wall and USSR) suggests that some Americans made “PC” their new ideological enemy. I’d bet the rise in anti-PC usage correlates with the rise of “alt right”: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/10/us/alt-right-national-socialist-movement-white-supremacy.html

          • objectivefactsmatter

            They don’t contradict each other at ALL! It’s perfectly clear what the term means. It means “politically” correct according to the new culture that Marxists want to impose on “the world.” See Antonio Gramsci.

            “I’d bet the rise in anti-PC usage correlates with the rise of “alt right””

            If by “alt right” you mean a reaction to the Marxist culture war, um…I guess…if you must conflate all resistance to Marxism. That’s your call.

            You need to study a bit more history to even begin to understand the topics beyond your cult’s talking points.

            Correct is just correct. If you reference a math problem and or solution, you just say this is my proof or my theory. If you’re referencing morality you reference the source or a culture.

            “This is what we do in Japan. But you can’t do that.” This would cultural correctness and context always matters.

            If you want to impose new taboos without opening up conversations about conflicting worldviews (Marxist versus traditional property rights and liberties as defined most clearly in the US Constitution) you have to apply / assert a new “common sense” and assert “X is correct because…” or “This is politically correct” (based on a new value system – but basically by decree). Which new value system? The one that posits the root of virtually all conflict is “disparity” and the main cause of disparity today is “capitalism.” The one that jumps directly to the “racism” conclusion every time someone suggests, I don’t know, ID’s for voting and whatnot. The one that is used to develop all of the Critical Theory variants.

            It’s all perfectly clear to anything that is right in their mind and knows the landscape. You’re clearly in denial.

          • objectivefactsmatter

            “”Or whatever” is a weasel term, signaling your brain BSing, unable to articulate with precision because it lacks objective facts.”

            Dumbass,

            I gave you some sources for where people have used the term. Those are based on objective facts. But we can’t then assert who the first person was to use it in English, or something like that, because that is not realistic. One must have realistic expectations to discuss anything objectively or else you end up raising very stupid objections.

            The root of the term, of the concept, is the culture war that the Marxists pivoted to when they began to conclude that a global workers’ revolution was not going to catch fire immediately following the Russian Revolution. Political Correctness is the concept of the correct culture and value system of the collectivist left as defined by Karl Marx and then by his followers that had to account for the workers’ revolution not panning out as predicted.

            Do some reading on Antonio Gramsci and his “common sense.” Political Correctness is the “shaming” and “common sense” employment of enforcing the new Marxist culture. We actually refer it now as Neo-Marxist to distinguish between the culture war and the ones working on bloody revolution.

          • Map ≠ Territory

            Learn the difference between primary and secondary/tertiary sources. You haven’t cited any primary source on Marxist PC that you are qualified to interpret. Meanwhile, there’s been populist correctness: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/19/populist-correctness-new-pc-culture-trump-america-brexit-britain Since your conspiracy theory blames everything on Marxism, you’ll have to blame Trump populist correctness on Marxism too.

          • objectivefactsmatter

            Moron,

            Your ignorant skepticism and straw men don’t do anything to clarify the questions at hand.

            “Meanwhile, there’s been populist correctness…”

            Of course, moron. The point is that “moral correctness” or perceived moral correctness is derived from a particular worldview. That is the point. Political Correctness that sells the “moral” framework for “from each according to his ability, to each according to need” is derived from Marxism.

            Politically Correct as a term is deliberately calling out a new Marxist “moral code” to distinguish itself from the hegemonic (or status quo) sense of “common sense.” Virtually all of the distinctions between “traditional” Western sense of common sense and Marxist common sense have to do with views of property rights and causes of “disparity” and even whether disparity is in itself an evil and unnatural thing.

            Of course you can start your own cult and break them all down. Every culture has its own common sense. You can call that (paradigmatically) Politically Correct. But the term itself comes from English speaking Marxists that want to call out that the new morality conflicts with the old. PC is showing new moral codes in spite of instincts to protect individuals first, to focus on case evidence over historical narratives and so forth.

            You truly are an incorrigible idiot. Assertions of Political Correctness are meaningless without being tied to a specific culture and its’ distinct moral code. Otherwise you just say “x” is correct. It’s also inherently mendacious because if you want to make moral assertions you would say, “Y might be lawful but I find it morally incorrect” or simply immoral. The term itself is inherently mendacious. Because it wants to provide cues and assertions without debate.

          • objectivefactsmatter

            “…you’ll have to blame Trump populist correctness on Marxism too.”

            Some of Trump’s supporters are affected by the mendacious culture wars, indeed. Some do have a Marxist worldview without accepting Marx’s solutions.

            However, Trump’s platform itself is a rebuke of zero-sum materialism. It is a rebuke of Marxism, although most people are too ignorant to understand that.

          • objectivefactsmatter

            And the article is stupid. Simply making assertions is not “Political Correctness.” Political Correctness is making moral assertions as, well, correct politically. These idiot doesn’t understand a damn thing. She’s confused so it must be the fault of people that are sick of “elitists.”

            And nothing I wrote argues against the fact that nihilistic Marxists see these as subjective moral assertions. It’s not that other cultures/groups/clubs don’t have their own views on what is right and wrong. How does that make it merely political? It doesn’t. It’s just how nihilists see things. It’s your defective analytical paradigms.

            Until other groups come along and explicitly argue that such and such is politically correct, as Marxists and their dupes did for decades, you can’t say that other groups have their own Political Correctness just because they have their own sense of what is morally correct. If you’re honest you’ll say X has their own moral code or moral correctness. No kidding. Marxists use mendacious terms because they do not believe that “the masses” are smart enough to understand their “scientific” arguments in favor of their agenda. They believe that “capitalist oppression” is so hegemonic and deterministic that most people won’t fully understand it until after the “international revolution.”

          • objectivefactsmatter

            PC is adherence to Critical Theory:

            https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/critical-theory/

            You fascists want to deny this because you can’t just say “X is correct” and you want to make moral assertions. And most of the time you just assert X is “right” or something like that because the PC term has been discredited and your intellectual arguments are weak and stupid.

            The brightest among the left are the morons like Robert Reich that has to mess around with silly schemes like getting a bunch of lying idiots to go around and create food fights that mock Congress critters for not caving in to leftist demands.

            You are a fascist. And you are so intellectually dishonest that you can only use the transparent “battle of narratives” tactic. I don’t care about your narratives. You have not actually demonstrated that I have said anything inaccurate. You’re just flinging a lot of poop into the air like a disturbed monkey. Because your intellectual emptiness is being examined.

            If you believe that Critical Theory is like “settled science” why don’t you defend it honestly? You can’t. So you go around attacking people that expose your cult. The Politically Correct Critical Theory cult. Your behavior only supports what I’ve said even though you’ll do anything that you can to distract from the exposure.

            A view Trump fascists that you morons like to bring out are also leftwing like you. The difference is that they’re nationalists. And there is nothing wrong with nationalism under a Constitution like ours. In any case, some of these dummies have the same view of the world that you do except that they don’t want to play your games. They see that these “altruistic” elites are a bunch of incompetent liars that are taking from the rich and giving to the poor in a way that hurts all working people. They feel that is wrong.

            You believe in wealth transfers or anything that your elites signal to you. You can’t defend those views intellectually. All you can do is run around like a monkey and fling poop to disrupt rational analysis of the political controversies of the day that all boil down to individual rights versus an imagined “right to equality” (equality of condition). Right to “equality of condition” is exactly like saying the right to elect totalitarian elites that I think can get me some wealth transfers as they fight for my nihilistic “political identity” cult to become dominant.

            Culturally, you are exactly like the Nazis. You just overtly blame “rightwingnutjobs” instead of the Jews. And in the back of your mind, you won’t deny that you think “the Jews” or “capitalists” are behind “the banks” that you think caused the New Deal housing bubble and its most recent crash ~10 years ago.

          • objectivefactsmatter

            Map ≠ Territory objectivefactsmatter • 2 months ago:

            “I’d bet the rise in anti-PC usage correlates with the rise of “alt right”: ”

            You’re a total idiot. Leftist and centrist academics and consultants in the West have been using that term since the 1990s. Without explaining it.

            This is Politically Correct.

            What does that mean? Oh, it’s like diplomacy? Oh, OK. Well what kinds of things are “undiplomatic.”

            Anything that makes people uncomfortable with “disparity.”

            I see. Fine

            But then, the fight over PC got big when people starting explaining how Islamic terrorists are victims. I clearly remember calling BS on people back in early 2002 that defended Islam dogmatically because of the “science” that asserts that all religions are roughly equal and merely used as social and political tools. Asserting that as “science” comes from Critical Theory. That is derived from the Marxist worldview.

            Those people defending “oppressed” jihadis are not arguing that based on case evidence they are all innocent. They’re suggesting that Muslims are “victims” of “colonialism” which is a feature of “imperialistic capitalism” and so forth. They’re class victims.

            All of these political identity groups that want you to look away from case evidence and towards “historical injustice” are doing so with an agenda to change Western “common sense” to be focused on alleged historical injustices that can only be fixed, they posit, by “socializing” property rights and speech rights. IOW, an elite “altruistic” oligarchy needs to rule over the masses to decide how to interpret Social Justice and “from each according to ability, to each according to need.”

            Political Correctness is about favoring “Social Justice” (disparity narratives based on historical materialism) over case evidence and empiricism.

  • Lufwyr

    Political correctness is unfortunatly the law in Quebec, to a ridicule extend.
    Well, pretty much everywhere in Canada. Bitch arent bitch anymore, they’re female dogs…

    • sighthndman

      Really? Does that mean we’ll have to come up with new signs to replace the ones that say “Dogs that are lame and bitches in season will be excused from competition”?

  • lucy Smith

    . It meant challenging orthodoxy. It meant publicly supporting HIV sufferers. It meant doing good.Casquette Snapback

    • SFSteve317

      Yes it MEANT doing good. Now it’s used to help progressives FEEL good about themselves whether they’re DOING good or not. A $15 minimum wage would do considerably more harm than good, but liberals can FEEL good about themselves because they think they’re standing up for the working class and the poor. At the same time they can point out how un-PC conservatives are because they want to keep workers poor & oppressed.

      • Map ≠ Territory

        “$15 minimum wage would do considerably more harm than good”
        Not according to between-neighboring-states studies treating implementation of min wage laws like in-field experimental condition. What study you referring to, or are you just basing your opinion on no-data, overly-simplistic theory?

        • SFSteve317

          I’m all for a minimum wage. I said a [FIFTEEN DOLLAR] minimum wage would do more harm than good. $11 or $12 is more feasible for employers.

  • TheExecutiveProducer

    I want to live in a world where people feel free to reveal that they are bigots, homophobes, anti-semites etc. etc. etc. I WANT them to reveal themselves to me so that I can shun them.

    • Map ≠ Territory

      They are free to. But they want the privilege to soapbox, flame or troll without being seen as stupid or avoided. If they don’t get that privilege, they whine ‘PC/SJW/liberals/leftists are using speech to oppress my speech’.

      • SFSteve317

        Speech? Since when is damaging property and lighting things on fire “speech”? Folks in the left field bleachers will do whatever it takes to shut down conservative speakers. They are scared & desperate because they know their propaganda won’t stand up to informed debate.

  • SFSteve317

    Political correctness suppresses lively, open public debate. When someone says there are a disproportionate number of Black men in prison, it is not PC to point out Black males commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime, so you are labeled a “racist” for pointing out the truth.

    • Map ≠ Territory

      Typical trope that speech is anti-speech. You can spout whatever facts you want. The reason you haven’t much to add is not what others say but your own ignorance, such as about the studies they’re referring to, incl. on criminalization of the non-violent.

  • WFP

    “Politically correct” was initially coined by Leon Trotsky
    to refer favorably to those whose views remained in sync with the
    ever-shifting Bolshevik Party line. This was important, as “not PC”
    people risked prison or death.

    So basically, the definition has not changed…