Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture

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Wiley, Dec 1, 2009 - Language Arts & Disciplines - 336 pages
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In this carefully researched, thought-provoking book, Geoffrey Hughes examines the trajectory of political correctness and its impact on public life. Focusing on the historical, semantic, and cultural aspects of political correctness, it will intrigue anyone interested in this ongoing debate.
  • A unique and intriguing journey through the trajectory of political correctness and its impact on public life, focusing on the historical, semantic, and cultural aspects of what PC means
  • Explores the origins, progress, content and style of political correctness, discussing and analyzing around one hundred terms and lexical formations, from Chaucer and Shakespeare, Marlowe and Swift, to nursery rhymes, rap and Spike Lee films, David Mamet, J. M. Coetzee and Philip Larkin
  • Offers a detailed semantic analysis of the way that key words have been exploited both to advance the agendas of political correctness and to refute them

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Varieties of the Politically Correct Experience
A review of
Political Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture
by Geoffrey Hughes
Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 320 pp. ISBN 978-1-4051-5278-5
(hardcover); ISBN 978-1-4051-5279-2 (paperback). $89.95, hardcover;
$34.95, paperback
Reviewed by
J. I. Hans Bakker
Some books are written to be read, and other books are reference works. Political
Correctness: A History of Semantics and Culture is unusual in that it is both jam-packed
with detailed information and yet makes for a good read. Everyone should read this book
and also keep it on the shelf as an excellent reference work. This informative and wellwritten
book covers more than just the notion of political correctness (PC) in the narrow
sense. It encompasses far more than the problem of increased, PC kinds of concerns, as
discussed in Part I, Political Correctness and Its Origins.
My own interest in semiotics, including both pragmatics and semantics, led me to a
desire to read this book, and I was not disappointed. However, if there is a new edition it
would be nice to see more linkages with some of the scholarly literature on semiotics and
hermeneutics (Chandler, 2007; Jay, 1998; Merrell, 1992). Perhaps the exclusion of the
strictly academic discussion some specialists might like to see is due to the fact that the book
already makes demands on the average reader. Indeed it is not simply a popular book.
Unlike the spate of paperbacks that treat language lightly, this is a serious albeit not entirely
scholarly book.
Part II of the book is The Semantic Aspect. In Chapter 3 the excellent summary of the
way in which dictionaries have become authoritative helps everyone to understand a great
deal about “words.” For example, it was only a few hundred years ago that dictionaries
started to differentiate among “levels of usage.” Certain words were deemed to be so
offensive that they could not be included in dictionaries even though they were frequently
used in everyday speech.
Words in themselves are neutral, but we attribute great moral value to the use of
certain words rather than others. Today it is more common to find words recorded in the
dictionary that may not be used in polite society. Political correctness is particularly clear in
the way in which language is classified according to “registers” (i.e., literary, formal,
colloquial, common, slang, criminal underworld jargon, taboo, buzz words). Formal and
official language is usually considered politically correct even though it may be
ideologically based, as in the word proletariat. (The word is derived from the Latin meaning
“having lots of children.”)
Chapter 4 is a study of 100 years of newly coined words and phrases. Some of those
words are no longer in use (e.g., jungle bunny). But many still are commonly used (e.g.,
African American, which was first used in 1863, and homophobia, first used in 1920). Many
of the new words were coined as PC words but have now become the commonly used
words. Many are neologisms and nonce words (i.e., words coined for a specific occasion,
like Rush Limbaugh’s feminazi).
Some readers may find Part III the most intriguing because it is in Chapters 5 and 6
that Geoffrey Hughes discusses issues of race, nationality, difference, and politics. The idea
of difference is often captured by the way in which PC words represent a more liberal or
even radical view of the value of difference, while words that are not deemed to be PC often
designate outdated and prejudiced views concerning class, gender, race, nationality, and
disability. Even food habits have a history of semantic usage.
The term vegetarian was coined in 1839, and the Oxford English Dictionary records
the gradual evolution of ways in which the word can be used. A vegetarian was once a
person who had a religious reason for his or her dietary preference, but today many vegans
prefer their diet as a lifestyle choice. The phrase “genetically modified” was first used
scientifically in 1968 but entered

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About the author (2009)

Geoffrey Hughes graduated from Oxford, was an Honorary Research Associate at Harvard, and is Emeritus Professor of the History of the English Language at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. He is the author of An Encyclopedia of Swearing (2006), A History of English Words (Wiley-Blackwell, 2000), Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English (1998), and Words in Time (1988). He is currently Honorary Research Associate at the University of Cape Town.

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