Political Correctness.

Dave Wilton has made a Big List post about the phrase politically correct (often abbreviated as PC), giving a useful account of its history in English, starting with its occurrence as “a collocation of words rather than a fixed lexical item” (as in a 1793 US Supreme Court opinion by Justice James Wilson) and proceeding to the current meaning “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters”; here’s the first example he finds of the latter (from the Christian Science Monitor of 4 September 1919):

Mr. Svarc charged that just as the Magyars would allow no priest to serve in Slovakia unless he were “politically correct,” in being which he had to become a traitor to those of his own blood and a slave to the Magyars, so the Magyar Government had issued orders to the bishops to cooperate with Austro-Hungarian consuls in this country to get “right conditions” in the United States.

He says “there is no doubt that politically correct had become a term of art in Marxist circles by the middle of the 1920s […] By the mid 1930s, politically correct was appearing in non-Marxist writing, but in reference to restrictions on speech in the Soviet Union, and it is here that the term starts to acquire its negative valence. […] In the 1970s, progressive—not necessarily Marxist—movements in the United States picked up the term. In the process, the term softens from hardline Marxist dogma to a call for inclusion and being mindful and respectful of voices and views that had traditionally been suppressed or ignored.” Which is well and good, but as I said in the comment thread:

I’m surprised you’re treating this as a purely English-language phrase, with no consideration that it might be a calque. Your 1919 quote implies that there was an equivalent Hungarian (or perhaps German) phrase that was being so translated, and a Russian corpus search found this from a 1930 collection by Yuri Pisarenko: “Политическая корректность режиссера не делает театр современным” [The political correctness of the director does not make the theater contemporary] — at that time it is highly unlikely it would be a calque from English. It is certainly an interesting phrase, and it deserves an international investigation, however that might be provided (you’d need scholars familiar with the major European languages and their histories).

And then it occurred to me that I could make a start on that investigation by posting it at LH and seeing what the collective knowledge of the Hattery turns up. (While as you know I don’t try to keep threads “on topic,” I do hope we can avoid the tiresome issue of whether PC is a Good or Bad Thing and focus on the history of the phrase.)


  1. I agree. In Russian I am not familiar with the term despite Marxism, I learned it in 90s (alongside with харассмент or better харрасмент).

  2. It’s amusing that the Russian Wikipedia article treats it as a borrowing from English and seems to think the whole thing started in the 1970s.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    When it come to the doctrine that using correct terminology will of itself solve social ills, I think that China has a clear claim to prior art:


  4. I heard that it came to English specifically from Maoist writing, but I can cite no sources.

  5. @LH, unfortunately, Russian WP tends to mimic English WP, but in this case it reflects the perception of native speakers.
    I did not recongise it as a Soviet term and I don’t think it was a term in Soviet political discourse (else I think I would know it).

    Note the inversion: if political correctness is used the same way as …чистоплотность, дальновидность etc., it describes ‘correctness’ of your behaviour in politics. Here we, conversely, bring politics into your daily communication: your vocabulary is correct from the political point of view.

  6. (Why “unfortunately”: consider Орисса. It was renamed to Одиша in 2018 and the admin countered the argument about absence of Russian “authoritave sourses” noting that they are just too slow. Then sources appeared, because… people who write in Russia about India consult Russian Wikipedia when they need to learn Russian names of Indian states, and WP says it was renamed.)

  7. The Mandarin for “politically correct” is 政治正确, with the same literal meaning. The Chinese Wikipedia article seems to think it came from English.

    The interesting thing to me is that it’s often written as “zzzq” on the Chinese internet, an acronym of the pinyin. I’m not sure why the Roman letters are used – I get the impression that zzzq is slangy and derogatory & generally used where an English comment would complain about wokeness, etc. But Roman-letter acronyms are pretty common in Chinese in general and often mysterious to me. (I’m terrible at Chinese.)

  8. Personally, I encountered the term first in English, and in German-language discussions it’s frequently used untranslated from English or with the English abbreviation PC. I don’t have the capacity now to check whether there’s an older politisch korrekt not influenced by the current English-language discourse, maybe I’ll poke around during the weekend or my Christmas vacations.

  9. A Google Books search turns up this, from Ferdinand Tönnies, “Zur naturwissenschaftlichen Gesellschaftslehre” (Jahrbuch für Gesetzgebung, Verwaltung und Volkswirtschaft, N.F. 29 [1905], p. 44):

    Die Deszendenzlehre sollte als politisch korrekt erwiesen werden eine sehr üble Tendenz für eine Sache der Wissenschaft, ganz auf gleicher Linie stehend mit den sehr durchfichtigen Bemühungen mancher Philosophen des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts, die neue Physik, und was daran hing, als kirchlich korrekt darzustellen […]

    Not sure how it’s being used there.

  10. From Max Lenz, “Jahrhunderts-ende vor hundert Jahren und jetzt” (Cosmopolis 4 [Oct/Nov/Dec 1896], p. 276): “Heute ist es jenseits der Vogesen politisch korrekt, sich zur Revolution zu bekennen, als deren echte Erfüllung die dritte Republik gelten will.”

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Seconding drasvi’s point: I think the relevant well-meaning-yet-annoying sense only really arises when the term is applied to speech (or writing) in particular. Doing things (or even adopting ideological positions) in a politically correct manner is not really the same (though the mindset behind it might well be.)

  12. Well, for the purposes of this post I don’t care about the well-meaning-yet-annoying sense — I want to know how it was used before all that.

  13. From the Mémoires of Prince Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst (Vol. 1 [1909], p. 358), under the heading “Discours du Prince a la Chambre des députés (8 octobre 1867)”:

    A voir la tournure des événements, il n’est, à mon sens, ni politiquement correct, ni opportun, ni même compatible avec le maintien de la paix (que personne ne se fasse illusion), que des États sis au sud du Mein entrent séparément en relation plus étroite avec l’Allemagne du Nord.

  14. Nothing terribly early in Hungarian. From Évkönyv 8 [1956], p. 53: “Valamennyien a körülményekhez képest politikailag korrekt választ adtak Szalainak.” [All of them gave Szalai a politically correct answer given the circumstances.] From Történelmi szemle 2-3 [1959], p. 327: “Bánffy igaz hogy tisztességes ember s politikailag korrekt és loyalis…” [It is true that Bánffy is a decent person and politically correct and loyal…].

  15. In Russian, корректный used to mean not “true to fact” (which it probably means now under the influence of English), but more like “appropriate”. Obviously borrowed from French. Judging by the Russian national corpus toward the end of 19c. Applied to a person корректный meant well-behaving, not making a fuss. Probably obsolete. Hopefully not with its referent.

  16. @LH: the German examples you quote seem to mean “in accordance with the tenets of some prevailing political current”; in the example concerning French politics (jenseits der Vogesen) this would be the prevailing currents in the Third Republic. The French quote from the Mémoires, OTOH, sounds rather like it is about soundness of policy (the right political approach) than about ideological conformity to a political current.

  17. Yeah, it’s interesting to me how the meaning changes over place and time.

  18. J.W. Brewer says

    This may or may not apply to similar-looking words in other IE, languages, but wiktionary usefully gives two different senses of “correct” as an adjective in English:

    1. Free from error; true; accurate.
    2. With good manners; well behaved; conforming with accepted standards of behaviour [sic].

    I find this useful precisely because the skeptical-to-pejorative undertone of many speakers’ usage of “political correctness” and related phrases in at least American English, dating back to when I first encountered the phrase circa 1984-85, can be accounted for straightforwardly by assuming a parse that treats the “correct” as sense 2 rather than sense 1. No one is against sense-1 “correctness” but it is otherwise with sense-2 “correctness.”

  19. German has the same two meanings, although no. 2 may be a bit old-fashioned.

  20. David Marjanović says

    Die Deszendenzlehre sollte als politisch korrekt erwiesen werden eine sehr üble Tendenz für eine Sache der Wissenschaft, ganz auf gleicher Linie stehend mit den sehr durchsichtigen Bemühungen mancher Philosophen des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts, die neue Physik, und was daran hing, als kirchlich korrekt darzustellen […]

    Google Books brazenly tells me “no preview available”, so I can’t get at the context. But, with the two bolded corrections, I think it means:

    “The doctrine of descendance [ = theory of evolution] was to be proven as politically correct – a very pernicious tendency for a thing of science [odd wording], all in the same line as the very transparent efforts of some philosophers of the 16th and 17th centuries to present the new physics and what followed from it as ecclesiastically correct”, which must mean “not contradicting church doctrine”.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    “Ecclesiastically correct” doesn’t seem to have taken off, really. You’d have thought that there was plenty of potential there.

  22. As far as I can remember, the first time I encountered ‘politically correct’ was in the late 70s, at the University of Sussex. It clearly had a sarcastic tone: saying that someone was being politically correct meant that they were mindlessly conforming to whatever was the prevailing progressive opinion. People who were actually and sincerely progressive didn’t use the phrase.

  23. People who were actually and sincerely progressive didn’t use the phrase.

    That’s because the New Left had utter contempt for the Old Left of the ’30s that had used the phrase unironically. I amuse myself now with the thought that my own leftism is as archaic for my grandchildren as that of the interwar period was for m-m-m-my generation in the ’60s. Well, they’re good wild-eyed progressives (as the kids say now), so I just stand back and watch them rant with pleasure.

  24. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    I don’t remember when I’ve ever been able to get anything but No preview available from a link to Google Books that usonians seem to get almost full text access through. It may be a matter of Google not caring to buy off some Danish IP association and not having the metadata to tell if somebody in Denmark has bought such rights at some point.

    (There was a recent spat between Google and the Danish music IP protection mafia which meant that for a few months even a performance of Händel by a Frenchman and a US orchestra in a New York church was blocked in Denmark).

  25. An article about the origins of the term, available here, https://s-usih.org/2015/02/politically-correct-a-history-part-i/

    relies mostly on unreliable recollections and ipse dixit assertions, but it does contain two relevant quotes from “The Communist,” the monthly journal of the CPUSA from 1927 to 1944.

    The first quote is from an article in the January 1930 issue titled “The Internal Situation in C.P. of U.S.A.”, which is available here:

    https://www.marxists.org//history/usa/pubs/communist/v09n01-jan-1930-communist-mop-up.pdf (quote is at p. 87).

    The article was submitted to the journal in the form of a “resolution” of North American students at the Lenin School in Moscow, which contains the sentence:

    “Although the thesis of the Plenum of the Party do [sic] not contain such errors and give the Party a politically correct perspective, it is necessary on the basis of day to day events to conduct an enlightenment campaign about the decisions of the Tenth Plenum in order to fully overcome such erroneous conceptions.”

    In context, it seems likely that this “Resolution” of the students was prompted and reviewed by their Stalinist instructors as a cautionary note to the CPUSA to “correct” certain “errors” arising from the leadership of an “opportunist petty-bourgeois” named Lovestone. Or perhaps its purpose was to demonstrate to the CPUSA that the students were free from any of those errors. (Wikipedia tells us that the “Lovestoneites” were expelled from the CPUSA in late 1929.) It may even have been written in Russian and then translated, perhaps by some of the students. Either way, I suspect that the phrase “politically correct perspective,” along with many others in the article, is a literal translation of Soviet jargon.

  26. Great find, and I suspect the same thing.

  27. “Either way, I suspect that the phrase “politically correct perspective,” along with many others in the article, is a literal translation of Soviet jargon.”

    Unknown to me in the form “политически корректный” BUT “политически верный” can be translated this way.

  28. But you have not (I presume) immersed yourself in the political rhetoric of the early post-revolutionary period. I quoted a 1930 example of “политическая корректность” in the post; it was obviously in use at the time.

  29. True, but if it was really common, it would be hard to miss.

    “Politically [adjective]” is common enough.
    I do recognise “политически верный” as common in Soviet language (верный is correct as in “correct solution”) but I am not sure if it was common before 70s.

    This motto made the word Soviet.

  30. continued …

    The second quote is from an article published in the October 1932 issue titled “Causes and Meaning of the Farmers’ Strike and Our Tasks as Communists.” The article was written by Harrison George, who was a trade union official, CPUSA leader, and covert Soviet agent. It’s available at

    (quote at 926).

    What’s interesting here is that George uses the phrase as a criticism:

    “The comrades were against the [United Farmers League] program. They were also against the U.F.L. and desired it liquidated. They insisted that all things be revamped to conform with the program for European peasants adopted by the All-European Peasants’ Committee. We looked over the program, but are sure that few farmers would ever understand it.
    Of course, it is politically ‘correct’ to the last letter.”

    So George finds himself chafing against heavy-handed Soviet control and describes it with a negative use of the term, to the point of putting “correct” in quotes.

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    An interesting sentence from a 1997 interview: “Sie spielen groben Punk-Rock, Ihre Texte sind aber kirchlich korrekt.” https://www.spiegel.de/panorama/auf-alles-gefasst-a-54b5ed21-0002-0001-0000-000008741456

  32. David Marjanović says

    Huh. Must be the second nonce coinage.

  33. J.W. Brewer says

    While H. George may have been chafing at the bad tactical judgment (perhaps because of ideological blinkers) of some of his “comrades,” the article Bloix quotes shows that he could sling hardline Stalinist rhetoric with the best (or worst) of them: The first page of the article alone includes such gems as “that oily old apologist for Wall Street” and “to wreck the auto-trucks and crack the skulls of their kulak neighbor.” Even if he was pragmatic enough to know that if he wanted to incite poorer Midwestern farmers to engage in violence against their more prosperous neighbors it was probably a good idea not to require the incitees to learn the jargon-loanword “kulak” as a precondition to being incited.

  34. It doesn’t seem that Russian was the source of “politically correct” as a fixed expression. Russian national corpus has only 2 instances of possible sources of the phrase. It’s too little if the expression was reasonably widespread.

    Я считаю этот ход политически правильным, но боюсь, что участие поляков куплено дорогой ценой. (1919)

    Пришли ли эта мысль Жанне [d’Arc] в голову самостоятельно или это был отголосок народной мудрости, воплотившейся в голосах и советах небожителей, ― это решить трудно, но мысль бесспорно политически верная и разумная. (1900-1910) — the quote is from the book entitled “Психиатрические эскизы из истории” (Psychiatric sketches from history) and as far as I can ascertain, “psychiatric” here doesn’t mean “psychological”.

  35. I agree, and I’m more and more curious to learn what was the source of the contagion, the Language Zero (as it were).

  36. Needless to say, I’d forgotten all about that — good for you for remembering and finding it. My “No, not Stalinist” turns out to be dubious; last year I was clearly assuming it was post-Stalinist, but the 1930 quote I found for this post suggests it may have been pre-.

  37. JW Brewer – as I said, George was not only a CPUSA official; he was literally a Soviet spy. Of course he was conversant with Stalinist rhetoric! My point about him was that a thorough-going Stalinist like George was willing to say in public that the enforced adherence to Party-line rhetorical style interfered with his organizational work; and my point about the point of this post is that he expressed his exasperation by using the phrase “politically correct” ironically – over three decades before we think of that usage emerging during the 60s (with the New Left) and 70s (2d wave feminism).

    Perhaps I’m misreading him. I’d be happy to be corrected if I am.

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