politically correct / PC

The term politically correct as we commonly use it today, meaning adhering to a political orthodoxy, especially as regards nomenclature and language, has its roots in Marxist writings of the 1930s. But it is considerably older in a slightly different sense meaning conforming to political reality.

This older sense dates to at least 1793 when US Supreme Court Justice James Wilson used the term in Chisholm v. Georgia:

Sentiments and expressions of this inaccurate kind prevail in our...language..."The United States,” instead of the “People of the United States,” is the toast given. This is not politically correct.

This older sense has been overwhelmed by the newer one, but it still appears as late as the 1970s. From the Economist of 6 January 1979:

His judgement that the time and place called for an attack on the quality and efficiency of the municipal government proved to be politically correct.

The modern sense of adhering to political orthodoxy appears as early as 1934 in James Strachey’s Literature and Dialectical Materialism:

We are sometimes a little apt to pretend, to wish, to suggest that such writers [sc. Marxists] are necessarily better writers, because they are more politically correct, than are our fellow travelers.

Although the antonym politically incorrect appears a year earlier in reference to Soviet education. A translation from the Soviet paper Izvestia in the Christian Science Monitor of 28 November 1933:

The results of a recent investigation of the knowledge of 65,000 Soviet pupils are candidly summed up in the official newspaper, Izvestia, in the following terms: “Bad grammar, abundance of mistakes in spelling,...superficial and often politically incorrect information in civics and social sciences.”

The abbreviation P.C. appears as early as the mid-1980s. From the New York Times of 11 May 1986:

There’s too much emphasis on being P.C.—politically correct.

It is sometimes claimed that the term and concept of political correctness is an invention by conservatives in the 1990s to caricature and make fun of liberal ideas. While conservatives did use the concept and the term to lambaste liberals, they did not invent it and, as we have seen, the term is originally an approving one.

(Note: In the book Word Myths, I discounted the idea that politically correct had its origins in Marxist thought and dated the newer sense to the 1970s. Subsequent discovery of the uses dating back to the 1930s proved this wrong.)

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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