The expressions “political correctness” and “politically correct” have gone through so many meanings that it’s no longer possible to know what a speaker means by them.
The word correct was used as a verb by Chaucer in the fourteenth century in reference to correcting his writing. It’s from Latin corrigere, “to make straight, set right, reform, amend.”
In the seventeenth century, Dryden used correct as an adjective with the meaning, “in accordance with an acknowledged or conventional standard.”
The abstract noun correctness is also cited from the seventeenth century, with the meaning, “the quality or condition of being correct; conformity to an acknowledged rule or standard, to what is considered right, or to fact.”
The early use of correctness was in reference to language, both written and spoken.
In the 1950s, correctness came to mean “conformation to a dominant political or ideological orthodoxy.” It usually referred to the necessity in non-democratic countries to accept government policies without complaint or suffer punishment. The unstated qualifier for this use of correctness was ideological or political.
By 1992, the use of correctness had expanded to refer to conformity to established beliefs in other matters. It was possible to speak of “environmental correctness” and “feminist correctness.”
The early 1970s saw the rise of the phrase “political correctness” to mean, “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, especially on social matters.”
This kind of “political correctness” tended to focus on language, especially the rejection of words and phrases thought to be offensive or discriminatory. For example, words like blind, deaf, short, and fat were no longer considered acceptable descriptive adjectives for people who are blind, deaf, short or fat.
Carried to its extreme, this type of linguistic political correctness became the target of ridicule, but it did have the positive effect of causing people to think about the social implications of language.
In 2016, the phrases “political correctness,” “politically correct,” and “politically incorrect” are getting an intense workout.
A Google search shows the following results for the three phrases:
“politically correct” About 7,110,000
“political correctness” About 6,610,000
“politically incorrect” About 3,440,000
Although not all of these examples stem from campaign rhetoric or media coverage, a great many—perhaps most—do. For example:
Trump has been running against “political correctness.”
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have blown up political correctness in New Hampshire
Presidential candidate Ted Cruz has called gluten-free military meals a sign of political correctness.
Whatever value the phrases may have had as meaningful expressions of thought has by now been lost. For example, depending on the topic, “political correctness” may refer to anything from word-choice to the rule of law.
In a society that values freedom of speech, the term “political correctness” should be unnecessary. In a democracy, no opinion—no matter how hare-brained—is forbidden. Self-styled language police may urge people not to use words they don’t like, but no one is going to be thrown into prison for calling a woman a girl.
In a society that purports to value education, shameless public displays of vulgarity and incivility are inappropriate—especially in the behavior of (presumably) educated public figures. The popular sentence-opener, “It may not be politically correct, but…” often signals no more than the imminent expression of a vulgarity or an insult.
“Political correctness,” “politically correct,” and “politically incorrect” belong on the linguistic trash heap with all the other mostly meaningless, hot-button words and expressions used to manipulate people.