Do you really want to offend my lovely wife and that nice Irish guy at work?

My first poll is included below.  Your vote matters!

I agree with much that Henry Hitchings has to say in The Language Wars, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time.  Here I want to talk about a point on which I disagree with him: political correctness in language usage. Here’s some of what he has to say:

The inherent problem of PC was, and is, that it seeks to extend people’s rights while at the same time curbing their freedoms.  Instead of fostering respect for variety (of people, of cultures, of experiences), it stresses differences: we are not to think of the common good, but instead must recognize a growing number of special social categories.  This contributes to the increasing atomization of society: shared experiences and values are regarded not as things to cherish, but as reflections of constraint, evidence of the oppression of the individual and his or her particularity…. [N]egative attitudes precede negative names, and reforming language in the interest of equality is not the same thing as accomplishing equality.

I have to admit that I am unable to see what’s so problematic about political correctness in language.  (Political correctness in other areas, such as education and scientific inquiry, raise much more vexing issues.)  I wish Hitchings had given some examples of usages that advocates of political correctness would deplore but that he would find acceptable.

Here’s a case to consider.  My lovely wife is of Irish extraction.  She finds the term paddy wagon to be offensive.  And she’s not alone.  So does this nice Irish guy at work.  So do lots of Irish people.  The actual etymology of paddy wagon is unclear.  Does paddy refer to the Irish policemen who used the wagon?  Or the Irish drunks they threw into the wagon?  But whatever.  Rightly or wrongly, some Irish people find the term offensive.

So, would you use the term or not?  Here’s my first attempt at a poll.  Let’s find out what the blogosphere says!

To my mind, political correctness is just good manners.  If you want the right to use the term paddy wagon, knowing that you are offending people who aren’t in general hypersensitive and who aren’t out to score political points, go ahead.  Strike a blow for your freedom to act like a jerk!  Avoiding the term will do nothing to redress real evils, as Hitching puts it.  Too bad!  The jerk who is forced by cultural norms not to act like a jerk will will decide he is the victim of oppressive language orthodoxy.  And he’ll still be a jerk.  But he won’t annoy my lovely wife, and that’s worth something!

4 thoughts on “Do you really want to offend my lovely wife and that nice Irish guy at work?

  1. Will Shortz will occasionally use the word GYP in the Times crossword puzzle. Invariably he gets complaints from people who consider it a slur against gypsies. Shotz’s defense is that the word does not derive from gypsy and insists on his right to use it.

    So what is your feeling about political correctness in the context of mistaken etymologies?


    • This is probably worth its own post. Take a look at the Google Ngram Viewer for “niggardly.” Also note that the etymology of “paddy wagon” is unclear, and may have nothing to do with a negative stereotype of the Irish.


  2. Pingback: In regards to the language wars | richard bowker

  3. Pingback: Can you use a politically incorrect word if people are stupid for thinking it’s politically incorrect? | richard bowker

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