Stop. Think. Then speak: The nuanced vocabulary of politically correct language

In a world increasingly attempting to erase past inequalities and discriminations, words must communicate intent as much as ideas. On Zero Discrimination Day (March 1), a look at some commonly used words, phrases and expressions which are discriminatory and offensive.
(HT Imaging)
(HT Imaging)
Published on Feb 28, 2020 07:27 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | By

Golliwogs (a rag doll with black skin and frizzy hair) have been edited out of Enid Blyton’s books, and parents have objected to stories like The Ugly Duckling (for encouraging body shaming) and Sleeping Beauty (because she was kissed without her consent).

In a 2016 column in Fortune, Ellen McGirt refers to how, in the US, Columbus Day (celebrated in October), encouraged the counter celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, because many people felt strongly against celebrating a person who had “murdered and enslaved” the indigenous people. Political correctness is everywhere. As with any kind of change, the shift towards being politically correct in language and behaviour, has not been without debate. A 2006 article in Harvard Business Review states that while the writers “embrace the commitment to equity that underlies political correctness” they were troubled “by the barriers that political correctness can pose to developing constructive, engaged relationships at work. In cultures regulated by political correctness, people feel judged and fear being blamed. They worry about how others view them as representatives of their social identity groups. They feel inhibited and afraid to address even the most banal issues directly. People draw private conclusions; untested, their conclusions become immutable. Resentments build, relationships fray, and performance suffers.”

The need for it, however, can be summed up in the words of journalist Polly Toynbee, who, in a column (analysing Harriet Harman’s Equality Act - then Bill ) published in the Guardian in 2009, wrote, “The phrase ‘political correctness’ was born as a coded cover for all who still want to say Paki, spastic or queer... who still want to pick on anyone not like them, playground bullies who never grew up. The politically correct society is the civilised society, however much some may squirm at the more inelegant official circumlocutions designed to avoid offence. Inelegance is better than bile”.

On Zero Discrimination Day (March 1), therefore, a look at some commonly used words, phrases and expressions which are doing the rounds of the internet for being discriminatory and politically incorrect.

What Not To Say
Old: It’s ageist. Like “elderly.” Instead, refer to them as “older” people. Also avoid phrases like “over the hill”, and “past your prime”. Bertie Wooster may have called his aunt “aged relative” or “ancient” in the world of PG Wodehouse, but don’t draw inspiration from him here.

Bald: Refer to someone as bald and you are in danger of being seen as either an ageist (since loss of hair is often, though not always, connected with aging) or discriminating on the basis of appearance, or both. Especially steer clear of cracking bald jokes. Former footballer and BBC broadcaster, Gary Linekar, learnt this the hard way last year when he received complaints for cracking a joke on co-hosts Alan Shearer and Danny Murphy’s baldness.

Fat/overweight: Referring to someone or describing someone as such is body shaming. Even doctors in some countries avoid referring to their patients as fat, overweight or obese, and instead use words like unhealthy weight or healthy weight.

Skinny: Many feel that if calling someone fat is body shaming, so is branding someone thin or skinny. Stick to healthy/unhealthy weight.

Tomboy: The word “tomboy” was probably first used in the mid 16th century, but back then it referred to rude and boisterous boys. By the late 16th or 17th century, however, it had come to mean a girl who “dresses and acts like a boy”. The word has no place in today’s lexicon when people are battling even gender identities assigned at birth and the social expectations based on it. Also avoid saying “act (or don’t) like a girl/woman” and “mannish”.

Sissy: This is the opposite of tomboy. The word – derived from sister – is not just used derogatorily for supposedly “unmanly” behaviour, but considered a homophobic slur by many. It also stereotypes and undermines women as being ‘weak’, helpless, tearful...

Illegal: When used for a person. It shows a prejudice against immigrants. A better phrase : “undocumented or unauthorised immigrants”. Many also avoid the word “refugees”, using migrants or immigrants instead. Technically, they aren’t the same – refugees having been forced to flee their country. But in the prevailing anti-refugee stance in many countries, immigrant, in common parlance, does make it seem a little more inclusive. Some non-locals also object to the tag of “foreigners” for being non-inclusive and making them feel that they don’t belong.

Ghetto: Not only did it once refer to areas segregated for the Jews (both in the 16th century, and later under the Nazis), but in later years, it’s been used to mean areas inhabited by minorities, often more impoverished than other parts of the city or town – for example, those parts of a town where Americans of African origin lived. Today, it is used to mean both a neighbourhood or a group of people of shared culture. A word both non-inclusive, and with racist and classist undertones.

Why still single: As a relationship status “single” shouldn’t come with the prejudice, or common social stereotypes, held against an uncoupled person. Not being in a relationship is not a cause for pity. It shouldn’t be assumed that a single person is unwanted or lonely. An increasing number of people today would rather be single than be with a partner that they are not completely sure about. #solotraveller and #flyingsolo are trending.

Mad/crazy/OCD: It is now unacceptable to use such terms (with negative connotations) for those living with mental health problems. But refrain from using these words even in casual conversation. To do so is to make light of mental illness, perpetuate stigma linked to mental health problems and promote stereotypes about those living with it. Don’t say someone has OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) just because he/she seems fixated on something. OCD is a also a mental health problem.

Lame: As in a “lame joke” or a “lame excuse”. Reason, same as above. It makes light of a person who is suffering from reduced mobility.

Exotic: It may be a rare name, or different appearance. But calling them exotic is not a compliment. It is racial. You are telling them that they don’t belong.


    Poulomi Banerjee is assistant editor at Hindustan Times.A journalist with over a decade’s experience, Poulomi has reported on varied subject, but human rights and gender issues are her preferred areas of work

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