I read an exchange on twitter in which two correspondents tied themselves into angst-ridden knots over the proper terms to use when discussing the paralympics. We scuttled about different phrases - "able-bodied", "people with disabilities", "the disabled" and "not disabled" - with, it seems some of these being 'offensive' and others not.
There is perhaps a whole thesis to be written about the evolution of non-discriminatory language and perhaps it will explore the fuzzy boundaries between giving respect to others and political correctness. How often do we read of some or other person causing 'offence' while not intending to do so - usually by using the incorrect iteration in the evolution of language to describe a particular minority.
There are two problems with this approach to language. Firstly it gives the power of the bully to those who are appointed (usually through some unspecified and undemocratic role as a 'representative' of the minority concerned) to police the language. By not being up with the latest 'approved' terms of description we expose ourself to causing 'offence' - even if we are using a term that is not disrespectful and has been in common and polite usage in the recent past.
Secondly, it removes context. The speaker is always exposed to the risk of challenge - regardless of intent or of context - simply for failing to use what we might call the "Approved Politically Correct Term" (APCT). The result of this is that language's subtlety is destroyed - the games of wit and pleasure we play with words are closed off because the guardians of the APCTs watch over us prepared to be offended. And to use their duly appointed bully pulpit to punish.
This brings me to one of the most important passages in English literature, a passage where the magic of words is revealed and where we are given permission to be in charge of the language rather than supplicants to some approved order:
"I don't know what you mean by 'glory,' " Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. "Of course you don't—till I tell you. I meant 'there's a nice knock-down argument for you!' "
"But 'glory' doesn't mean 'a nice knock-down argument'," Alice objected.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. "They've a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they're the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That's what I say!
The liberty that Lewis Carroll tells us about through the mouth of a nursery rhyme character is the very opposite of political correctness. It says that context is everything and that the author of the words sets the context. Rather than APCTs we have laissez faire language - joyous, challenging, exciting and - on occasion - offending. It is this that the deadening debate of precise minority descriptions destroys and the political correctness damages. The edge is taken away from communication, we concern ourselves more with the potential for offence that with the purpose of the communication - it's not just that people are offended by 'niggardly' and 'nitty-gritty' for no good reason but that when we use words, the word police ensure that they don't mean just what we choose them to mean. They mean what the politically correct have determined is their meaning.
All this kills language as we tippy-toe around certain subjects, eschew huge chunks of the dictionary and adopt a bowdlerised, dumbed-down language so as to avoid that moment of 'offence'. And the saddest thing is that, far from recreating sensibility and politeness, such political correctness makes for upset where there should be no upset and offence where there is no offence.
Perhaps we should take Humpty Dumpty's words and put them on big posters - make people realise that the language belongs to all of us. That we can wreck it as we wish, meddle with its meaning, love it and hate it as we wish. Maybe we should say to the bullies of language that we've had enough - respect is a reflection of character not a form of words. Political correctness is damaging, dangerous and joyless - it is time to get those words back under our control.