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.

Article Continued Below

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

Looking for our newsletter? Subscribe here!